Drilling Down: Groundwater Risks Imposed by In Situ Oil Sands Development

Groundwater monitoring and management steps laid out by Alberta ENGO

"Groundwater is a key turning point for the future of oil sands development and environmental management," says William Donahue, Ph.D., science advisor to Water Matters, an Alberta-based water-policy think-tank, "Unlike many surface water issues where provincial and federal governments have been playing catch up in their monitoring and assessment efforts, there is an opportunity to get ahead of the curve on groundwater protection, and that's what our recommendations are all about." Drilling Down: Groundwater Risks Imposed by In Situ Oil Sands Development, released today by Water Matters, provides clear, achievable recommendations for improving groundwater management, assessment and monitoring in the oil sands region.

Recent calls for improved environmental monitoring and management of oil sands developments in northern Alberta's lower Athabasca River basin have compelled provincial and federal governments to rethink their approaches to environmental management of surface waters. "These changes were driven in part because of dramatic images illustrating the effects on surface water," notes Donahue, "but little attention has been paid to groundwater in part because it is relatively invisible. Visibility and significance are not identical, however.  The effects of subsurface or in situ mining of bitumen has the potential to greatly affect groundwater, and lead to serious changes in surface water quality and quantity. Simply put, underground doesn't mean under control unless groundwater protection is taken as seriously as surface water protection."

In Drilling  Down, Water Matters recommends scientifically rigorous monitoring and assessment of groundwater resources by the provincial and federal governments, and perhaps most importantly the eradication of technical and regulatory uncertainties inherent to the in situ oil sands industry that pose huge risks to groundwater in the region.

These recommendations are timely. Just this month, Alberta's Expert Environmental Monitoring Panel recommended a radical overhaul of environmental monitoring and assessment programs in Alberta.  In doing so, they highlighted the need for credible, scientific understanding of cumulative environmental effects to make good environmental management decisions and, in turn, good resource development decisions. However, Alberta's draft Lower Athabasca Regional Plan and its Groundwater Management Framework — two mechanisms with the potential to support sustainable groundwater use — are poised to repeat many of the mistakes the provincial government has made in its historical approach to environmental assessment in the region. These include relying on too few monitoring sites, no assessment of interactions between surface waters and groundwater, no assessment of effects of development on groundwater sustainability in terms of water quality or quantity, and no regional integration or assessment of cumulative effects.

Current monitoring practices and plans in Alberta tend to focus on localized effects on water quality and quantity, without any assessment of cumulative effects of contamination or unsustainable pumping of groundwater on regional groundwater or the lakes, rivers and wetlands to which they are connected. "Alberta can seize upon these recommendations to begin to truly assess the cumulative environmental effects of regional oil sands development on groundwater and surface waters. This is an opportunity to create the foundation for informed environmental and industrial management and development decisions," says Donahue, "The alternative is to fail to lead and become victim to a preventable future crisis that results from insufficient planning and risk management."

"Credible groundwater environmental assessment, monitoring and management rests upon ensuring independent scientists design the processes and mechanisms," argues Julia Ko, Water Policy and Program Coordinator and the other author of the report, "With respect to surface water, the provincial and federal governments wasted a huge amount of resources and trust defending the flawed Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) only to have review after review call for an independent science program for monitoring. It's obvious we don't need to repeat this mistake again with groundwater."

Water Matters' report provides ten recommendations for improving groundwater monitoring and assessment and regulatory oversight of in situ oil sands projects that create substantial risks to groundwater in the oil sands region.  Ko adds, "We hope Albertans can use this list to hold decision makers accountable for adopting appropriate regional monitoring and development plans and regulatory limits that will protect groundwater and surface waters in Alberta."

Read the full report

Media Contact

Dr. Bill Donahue
Special Policy and Science Advisor
ph: 780-463-3971
cell: 780-566-4680

Julia Ko
Water Policy and Program Coordinator 
ph: 403-538-7785 (local to Calgary)