STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Tar Sands Threaten Groundwater

Posted by mhudema on July 28, 2008

Oilsands threaten groundwater
Conservation specialist warns steam blowout could contaminate massive Athabasca aquifer near Fort McMurray
Jennifer Yang
The Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON – Oilsands development could be putting one of Canada’s largest groundwater systems in peril, the Alberta Wilderness Association warned Saturday.

Many of the region’s oilsands projects sit directly below what’s believed to be the largest aquifer in the North American Plains region.

This immense system of underground water channels, which includes parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan, is an invaluable source of Canadian freshwater that feeds into several important waterways such as the Athabasca River.

Critics are particularly worried about oil projects taking place over aquifers that use an oil extraction method called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage, or SAGD, commonly used in an area between Fort McMurray and Lac La Biche.

SAGD uses high-pressure steam to heat underground oil deposits, or bitumen, and liquefy it to be piped.

An impermeable layer of shale sits between the bitumen and the aquifer layers, but if the steam chambers blew out, the water could be contaminated, said Carolyn Campbell, conservation specialist with the association.

“There’s a real risk,” she said.

“This is Perrier-quality water … our groundwater represents our big freshwater resource for the future.” In partnership with the Métis Nation in northeastern Alberta, the association is urging stricter regulation and monitoring of SAGD operations near aquifers.

In 2006, a steam blowout occurred on a Total E & P Canada oilsands site near Fort McMurray, ejecting rocks and other material over about 300 metres.

The accident wasn’t near any aquifers and there wasn’t any oil spewed, but Campbell said the incident highlights the complacency around SAGD surveillance.

“If these things are being monitored so carefully, why are there steam releases happening?” she asked. “These incidents just raise questions that we have to be more vigilant.” The proper protection of Alberta’s precious aquifers isn’t taken lightly, said Bob Curran with the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). The government agency regulates and monitors energy development in Alberta.

“We’re well aware of these issues and we’re just as concerned,” Curran said.

He said aquifer protection has been a top priority with regulators since the beginning of oilsands development.

He said all operations near aquifers — oilsands or otherwise — are closely scrutinized by the ERCB.

There is also significant understanding about the geology of the Athabasca oilsands region, which is among the most well-mapped oil projects in the world, Curran said.

“We think the potential for a major incident is very small,” he said. “Any activity in the province where you’re going to come into contact with an aquifer, there’s extra steps taken to protect the aquifer.” The ERCB also requires rigorous reporting from companies, and regularly sends inspectors out to oilsands sites.

In 2007, field staff conducted 16,000 inspections, said Curran, and any facility that fails to comply is immediately shut down.

“For some reason, there’s a perception the companies are out there running amok, and that’s just not true,” said Curran.

“The rules in Alberta are very strict and for the most part companies follow them.” But it’s not enough, argues Campbell. Most companies only do rigorous testing and monitoring during early stages of production, she said.

Considering that geological conditions continually evolve, those initial assessments don’t necessarily apply in the long term, she said.

“With only a certain amount of water on this planet, we have a treasure trove in this aquifer,” said Campbell. “Our message is, let’s make sure the regulatory standards are there so (companies) aren’t making decisions that compromise this freshwater resource.” jyang@thejournal.canwest.com

© The Edmonton Journal 2008
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