Climate

The Dry Weather That’s Hitting The Tar Sands Industry Is ‘A Preview Of The Future,’ Scientist Says

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eamon Mac Mahon

This June 25, 2008 photo shows an aerial view of Alberta's Athabasca river running through the oil sands developments in Canada.

Dozens of tar sands developers in Alberta’s tar sands have been suspended from taking water — needed for their operations — out of local rivers, after a low flow advisory was issued.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) suspended 73 licenses to temporarily divert water (TDLs) from the Athabasca, Peace, and Wabasca rivers on July 24, after unusually dry weather caused water to fall to at or below healthy maintenance levels. Now, scientists are saying this could become a regular issue for Alberta’s tar sands industry.

Tar sands mining is a type of surface mining in which the top layer of organic matter — trees and plants — is scrapped off, and heavy crude oil is filtered from the sand and clay below. Three barrels of water are needed for every barrel of oil extracted from the tar sands, according to Friends of the Earth.

“More than 90 percent of this water, 400 million gallons per day, ends up as toxic waste dumped in massive pools that contain carcinogenic substances like cyanide,” the group says. Processing the oil from tar sands is incredibly carbon-intensive, and because of tar sands, the energy sector has become Canada’s biggest source of greenhouse gases.

As global warming worsens, some regions, including Alberta, can expect more and more dry summers, scientists say.

“This is absolutely a preview of the future,” Simon Dowell, a climate scientist at the University of British Columbia, told ThinkProgress.

Earlier snow melt and drier conditions due to climate change are “exactly what all the models predict,” he said. In fact, the AER suspensions came the same week a paper Dowell co-authored was accepted for publication. In the paper, Dowell and lead author Doris Leong found that, by mid-century, there could be two-month interruptions in tar sands development due to lack of water.

Four counties in Alberta have declared a state of “agricultural disaster” due to drought this summer, the CBC reports. And with the record-breaking El Niño event, it’s expected that western Canada will continue its dry spell at least through this winter, Dowell said.

Some studies have predicted that climate change could increase the likelihood of severe El Niños, a phenomenon that, like climate change, can exacerbate extreme weather events in some parts of the world.

This spring, a group of more than 100 U.S. and Canadian scientists banded together against the continued development of the Alberta tar sands, saying it is “incompatible” with limiting climate change.

“It is somewhat ironic,” Dowell said. “This is a reminder that even the fossil fuel industry has to be worried about the impacts of climate change.”

For now, the water use restrictions will not end operations for all the affected companies, as many have stored water or alternative sources.

“The AER encourages industry to develop their own contingency plans to minimize the impacts that low-flow has on their energy operations. For example, operators may have previously stored water from the source to a reservoir on their site, and when water restrictions are in place, they can divert water from a reservoir,” Jordan Fitzgerald, an AER spokesman, told ThinkProgress by email.

The current restrictions are in effect only in the Upper Athabasca Basin, in northern Alberta, but operators elsewhere in the province are also being urged to conserve.

“The AER is also encouraging oil and gas operators to voluntarily reduce their water consumption in areas with no mandatory restrictions but with streamflows lower than normal,” Fitzgerald said.

Unfortunately for the tar sands industry, low flows might actually be the new normal.