Oil sands application threatens Canadian Heritage River designation

Bait and switch application could mean 17,000 cubic meters per day from Alberta's Clearwater river not accounted for in original ERCB approval would be lost to SAGD and chemical processes

An application to Alberta Environment by Nexen Inc. for a water licence would be the first to enable the diversion of water from a designated Canadian Heritage River, the Clearwater River in north eastern Alberta, for unrecoverable use in oil sands upgrading and steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) for the Nexen Long Lake Project. Public notice of the application was placed in Alberta papers this week.

"This is a real test for Alberta Environment," says Ruth Kleinbub, a member of the Clearwater Heritage River Society that helped designate the Clearwater River , "The Clearwater was been nominated and designated as a Canadian Heritage River by Canadians, with the support of the Alberta government. As such, protective measures should ensure the river's outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values are maintained. Nexen's application threatens the Clearwater's Heritage status and will limit options for the protection of the river in the future."

Nexen's application for fresh water also completely contradicts the conditions of the original approval of the Long Lake Project by Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board. For its original application, Nexen stated in their environmental impact assessment that the project would "not use any water from the river or lakes in the area," but would use "saline water from deep wells that is not suitable for human consumption for making the steam used for bitumen recovery."

"Nexen has pulled a bait and switch. They got approvals from the ERCB on the condition of explicitly not using surface water and here we are a few years later and they are looking for 17,000 cubic metres per day from a heritage river," notes Cleo Reece, co-chair of Keepers of the Athabasca, and member of the Fort McMurray First Nation, "Alberta environment needs to turn down the application because Nexen is telling one story to get its initial approval and a different one to allow it to get out of its original promises."

"We need to protect and preserve the water," Reece adds, "the sacred gift we have been given, not only as a treaty right but as our responsibility for the future of the generations yet unborn".

"There is a lot of talk nationally and internationally about the province re-establishing credibility on oil sands," says Joe Obad, Associate Director of Water Matters. "Instead of taking out ads in Washington, the province would do better to back up its regulators here at home and reject Nexen's bait and switch. By turning down this application, Alberta Environment can meet its commitment to safeguard a Heritage River and send a strong message to industry: avoiding public scrutiny of true environmental impacts and switching stories between regulators won't be tolerated in Alberta."

Notice was placed in Alberta papers this week for the Nexen application. Albertans have 30 days (until August 5th) to place statements of concern with Alberta Environment.

Statements of Concern may be sent to:

Alberta Environment
Regulatory Approvals Centre
9th Floor, Oxbridge Place
9820 - 106 Street
Edmonton, Alberta T5K 2J6

Telephone: 780-427-6311
Fax: 780-422-0154

Please quote file number: 00267465 (Application Numbers: 001-00267465 and 001-00267466)

Further information may be requested from:

Sachin Bhardwaj, Nexen Inc.
801 - 7th Avenue
Calgary, Alberta  T2P 3P7

Phone: 403-699-6261
Fax: 403-513-5569
[email protected]

For interviews please contact:


Clearwater River as a Canadian Heritage River

  • The Nexen application will be the first for an oil sands operation seeking to use a Canadian Heritage River as a water source for SAGD and upgrader uses.
  • Local citizens champion the Canadian Heritage Rivers program to promote, protect, and enhance Canadian Heritage Rivers. Volunteers, partners, and communities submit applications to nominate and designate Canadian Heritage Rivers based upon "outstanding natural, cultural and/or recreational values, a high level of public support, and that sufficient measures will be put in place to ensure that those values will be maintained."1
  • The licence could threaten its Canadian Heritage Status.

Nexen Application

  • Nexen is asking for more freshwater to use for upgrading, but because upgrading is integrated with SAGD, more "recovered" water goes to SAGD.
  • Nexen plans to withdraw an average of 17 000 cubic meters of water per day, up to a maximum of 25 000 cubic meters per day or a total of 6,205,000 cubic metres (m3) per year.
  • This water would be used for SAG-D injection and upgrading. In SAGD, not all water is lost to deep water aquifers. In upgrading, water is converted through chemical processes. There will be a net loss of water to the river.

Clearwater River Information

  • The Clearwater River contributes almost 20% or 1/5 of the water that goes into the Athabasca River (19.2% of the mean annual flow)
  • February has the lowest average flow2

Low Flows and Critical Periods

  • The proposed increase in withdrawals from Clearwater River by 17,000 m3/day represents a 800% average increase in daily or annual withdrawals from the river over existing allocations
  • The design of the intake is 77,000 m3/day, and intended to allow expansion3
  • Athabasca River basin has no Water Conservation Objective or water management plan, and if Alberta Environment approves of this application, it will impair Alberta's ability to protect this River


  1. Canadian Heritage River System, Canadian Heritage River System-About Us, website., http://www.chrs.ca/About_e.htm (accessed May 13, 2010).
  2. Nexen Inc, Long Lake Source Water Project, April 2010, Application to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Transport Canada, and Alberta Environment,(Calgary, AB: Nexen, 2010), p.6.; HYDAT data, Water Survey Canada.
  3. Nexen, 2010 p.13