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River Supplying Water To Alberta Oil Sands Operations At Risk From Drought

A new study casts doubt on the long-term ability of the Athabasca River to supply the water Alberta’s oil sands industry relies on.

Water is allocated to oil sands operations based on river flow data collected since the 1950s, but that doesn’t necessarily represent an accurate assessment of the Athabasca River’s flow variability over the longer term, according to a report published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Development of Alberta’s oil sands, the world’s third-largest crude oil reserve at an estimated 168 billion barrels, uses a lot of fresh water — more than 3 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. Currently, the oil sands industry is allocated 4.4% of the mean annual flow of the Athabasca River to meet that demand. In 2010, the oil and gas industry accounted for 74.5 percent of total surface water allocations in the Athabasca River Basin, the report says.

That allocation takes into account seasonal fluctuation, but not long-term climatic variability and change, the authors of the report write — even though the region has a history of droughts and future droughts are likely, suggesting the industry’s water use might be unsustainable.

Syncrude’s Mildred Lake oil sands operation in Alberta, Canada. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers from the University of Regina and the University of Western Ontario, both in Canada, analyzed the measured river flow record for the Athabasca River Basin while accounting for the effects of climate oscillations that can confound attempts to spot long-term trends, like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the Pacific North American mode and El Niño.

Their analysis revealed declining flows throughout the river basin, which is consistent with the record of regional warming and the resulting loss of glacier ice and snowpack at high elevations in the Rocky Mountains, the origin of much of the Athabasca’s water.

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