Water is central to the well-being of people and their prosperity – not only to meet the obvious need for fresh water supplies of adequate quantity and quality, but also for appropriate water use and water treatment to ensure environmental sustainability.
A number of thoughts have recently crossed my mind - the growing public perception that the energy sector is a big water user, the challenges of water availability that are emerging in Southern Alberta, how glacial melt back will affect Alberta’s water supply and our severe lack of knowledge about our groundwater resources. Each opens up an important thought path.
When it came time to put a title on what I would say, I settled upon “Water – Minding the Meter”. To me, these few words sum up many of the issues and challenges we will face in the years ahead. The phrase “Minding the meter” reminds us we need to pay attention to our consumption. It leads us to think about cost. And it suggests an active rather than a passive response to what we measure – whether availability, use, quality or public perception.
So what is the meter telling us?
Canada has an unfair share of global fresh water resources, a lot like oil – but that water resource is not distributed equally among the provinces. Here in Alberta, we have only about 2.2 % of Canada’s fresh water. Eighty percent of that supply is in northern Alberta while 80 percent of Alberta’s water demand is in the south. We currently meet our water demand almost entirely from surface water (about 98%). Our groundwater supplies remain somewhat of a mystery.
Water issues are of considerable interest to Albertans. And, People do seem to have some understanding of water issues. For example, most are aware that Canadians are major users of water (actually we are the second highest global user at 1400+ m3/capita). Many Canadians also know that we pay very little for our water, but I don’t believe they realize the bargain pricing that exists in the agricultural sector. Many think the current system is at risk (in terms of water availability and quality), although that is not yet significantly influencing behaviour in any significant way. Overall, there is the typically Canadian reaction to a problem – that someone should do something about it.
I don’t think anyone really knows how much water is used in Alberta. To my knowledge, there are limited records of consumption, but we do know how much water is licensed to various sectors. Although the oil and gas sector represents only 7% of total provincial water allocation (compared to almost 50% for agriculture), the public perception is that water use by oil and gas, and the oil sands in particular, is a large and growing problem. I think a large part of this perception is driven by confusion between use and consumption (the industry uses a lot of water but actually uses the same water over and over again so consumption is quite small). Debating whether or not the problem is real or fairly reported seems to make little impact on the public perception. Issues such as the tailings pond incidents jaundice the public’s willingness to trust industry.
In any event, current and potential projects in the Fort McMurray and Industrial Heartland regions will, if current technologies are used, represent major increases in water use and consumption, which may in turn further influence development.
The irrigation sector accounts for 43% of the total water allocations in Alberta. The industrial sector accounts for 28% of allocations, followed by 11% for municipal use.iii A rebalancing of allocations may be necessary in the overall interest of the people and environment of the Province. This task will not be easy and will require good data, tools for assessing the data and models for predicting the outcomes of policy changes.
Addressing Problems and Influencing Public Perceptions
Current levels of knowledge are inadequate to effectively address water use and management. Important knowledge gaps include:
• Comprehensive data on water supply, especially ground-water, and water quality on a province-wide basis;
• Credible tools for policy, management and allocation decisions;
• Innovative and effective ways to renew and expand water infrastructure;
• Fresh and waste water contaminant process technologies;
• Issues with respect to produced water during oil and gas production, and, in particular, coal bed methane operations;
• Effects of oil and gas activity on fresh-water aquifers; and
• Means to reduce water consumption and use in major industries and urban regions.
ARC is developing technology to measure ground and surface water flows to enable better decisions on water allocation and use. The techniques involve the use of tracers, including naturally occurring isotopes. It allows us to both age date and track the water.
Hydrocarbon-Related Water Technologies
Let me spend the last few minutes available to speak specifically about oil and gas and table some thoughts you may wish to consider about water technology.
The volume of produced water from oil and gas operations in Alberta is large (1.6 M m3/day or 584,000,000 m3/year in 2003). Water volumes are expected to increase, especially in light of coal bed methane production. Approximately 0.8 M m3/day of produced water is used for enhanced oil recovery, with the remainder injected in disposal wells. Rather than injecting produced water, if treated properly, it could be used for other purposes. ARC is currently undertaking research on produced water treatment, with a particular focus on polymeric membrane separation.
North-eastern Alberta is home to a substantial part of the world’s known oil resources. As a result, it is likely development will continue in the decades ahead. Many in-situ processes rely on steam and steam requires water. Although water is recycled, make up water requirements are currently about 0.25 bb/bbl of bitumen. ARC is currently mapping north-eastern Alberta groundwater resources using specialized technology that provides a measure of the age of the water. Age tells us whether the aquifer is actively recharging or not. We have measured some with an age of 4,000 years (no apparent recharge) and others with an age of 200 years (is recharging). These measures will be very important in future water allocation decisions.
In situ recovery is expected to rise substantially in the coming years. The associated volume of water is expected to grow from 0.8 to 1.6 M m3/day.v Water treatment technologies for recycling water used in situ heavy oil recovery must be capable of operating at elevated temperatures (in the 90°C range). Current membranes are limited to lower operating temperatures, necessitating water cooling which results in reduced energy efficiencies. Research is targeting ceramic and high-temperature polymeric materials as potential solutions.
Steam production is an important aspect of is-situ recovery processes including huff and puff, steam flooding and SAGD. To reduce the need for blow-down and lessen waste disposal problems, efforts are underway to develop new products to lessen scaling, corrosion and contamination of boilers. (ARC is actively engaged in research in this area.)
Another area of need for additional work is tailings from oil sands mining operations. In this case, the target would be to develop recovery technologies for dealing with entrained organics (bitumen and solvents) and valuable metals.
The big public issues related to water are
• Scarcity and quality
• Water processing and recycling – consumption and net use
• Intra-basin transfer
• Pricing of water
• Ownership - of conserved and re-used water
• Decision-making processes and criteria
Drivers that will lead to water conservation include:
• Water cost – valuing water using market instruments;
• Water availability and water quality – access limitations; and
• Regulations – rules that require conservation
We have observed the challenges confronted by the Balzac developer when he tried to license water for a commercial development north of Calgary. We have seen the fallout from the death of ducks in the tailings pond, the release of contaminated water at an oil sands project and the challenge of public health concerns raised by downstream communities. It has become more and more apparent that actions speak more loudly than words. Public relations battles over water are unlikely to lead to consensus and even when a battle is won, the war will continue.
• North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance presentation, GE World Water Tour, June 21, 2007, Water Sustainability on the North Saskatchewan River, Frank Vagi
• Editorial Fort McMurray Today - February 26, 2008http://www.cemaonline.ca/component/option,com_docman/task,cat_view/gid,108/
• Current and Future Water Use in Alberta http://www.albertawater.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=80&Itemid=78
• Florence Hum, Peter Tsang, Thomas Harding, Apostolos Kantzas, Review of Produced Water Recycle and Beneficial Reuse, ISEEE 2005
John McDougall served as a member of ARC's Board of Directors from 1986 to 1992 and took the helm as CEO of the Alberta Research Council on October 1, 1997. He is also chairman of C-FER Technologies Inc., chair of Innoventures Canada, president of McDougall and Secord, Limited, and a director of PFB Corporation. An active participant in professional and community affairs, Mr. McDougall is a director of the St. John Council for Alberta, the Edmonton Space and Science Foundation and the AUTO21 National Centre of Excellence. John is a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineers, Honorary Colonel of the 8 Field Engineer Regiment, honorary life member of APEGGA and honorary member of the Mexican College of Civil Engineers. He is also the past chair of Engineers Canada, APEGGA, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and World Trade Centre Edmonton, and served as the initial Gertrude Poole Chair in Management for Engineers at the University of Alberta for six years. He has served as an advisor to federal and provincial governments on economic development, construction, trade, technology, and human resources. Born and raised in Edmonton, John obtained his B.Sc. in Civil Engineering and later undertook graduate studies in environmental engineering at the University of Alberta.
Reprinted from a speech presented at the PTAC 2009 Spring Water Forum, May 5, 2009.