The oil and gas industry could still be facing fees for the water it uses and cutbacks on using freshwater to recover oil, says Alberta Environment Minister Lorne Taylor.
If a broad-based committee that’s advising the province recommends those measures as part of Alberta’s new long-range water management strategy, the government will consider them, he said.
“I’m not backing away from those things,” Taylor said in response to comments made earlier this month by Ron Hicks, the department’s deputy minister, that the government’s initial water strategy won’t include either measure because they require more study. The government plans to release its strategy in mid-November.
The province has appointed a multi-stakeholder advisory committee on water issues that has held its first meeting. High on the agenda was the growing public concern over the oil and gas industry’s use of freshwater from lakes, rivers and underground aquifers.
“If the committee comes back and says we should be charging them (oil and gas companies for the water they use), we’d certainly look at it,” Taylor said at last week’s water-resources conference in Calgary, conducted by the Alberta Ingenuity Fund.
Likewise, if the committee recommends a phase-out of the industry’s use of freshwater in enhanced oil recovery operations, “we’ll certainly be looking at it,” Taylor said.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) says it’s willing to discuss whether it’s necessary to charge all freshwater users – not just oil and gas companies – a fee. However, the industry association opposes a ban on using freshwater to push more oil out of the ground.
CAPP says about half of Alberta’s oil production is water-assisted, and this production generated about $700 million in royalties for the province in 2001.
David Schindler, a University of Alberta ecologist and an internationally acclaimed water expert, says the industry should strive to at least phase out its use of potable groundwater.
“It would really set a good example and one that people feel strongly about,” he said, noting that fresh groundwater injected into deep oil wells “is gone forever” from the water cycle.
Farmers and ranchers are worried about their wells running dry due to three to five consecutive years of drought in some parts of the province.
The oil and gas industry needs to explore and invest financially in alternatives to using freshwater in enhanced oil-recovery operations, Schindler said.
Companies in arid areas in the U.S. are using carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming – instead of water, he said. “I don’t know why, if they can use it there and get rid of carbon dioxide and pressurize their wells at the same time, we can’t do it.”
Schindler told the conference that Alberta faces “a major water problem” within the next 50 to 100 years. “It’s a mater of when.”
He cited several studies and computer models to show the problem is due to global warming, development that’s destroying forested watersheds and wetlands, and huge agricultural and intensive livestock operations that are polluting the land with manure and waterways with fertilizers. It all adds up to “a recipe for disaster,” Schindler said.
Alberta Ingenuity is the trade name for the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Science and Engineering, which funds research in the province.
At the conference, the foundation announced funding of up to $7.5 million over five years for the new Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Water Research.
The centre will bring together top researchers from the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge. They’ll focus on four areas: the impact of human activities on watersheds; water ecology and the health of freshwater systems; safety of drinking water and wastewater treatment; and the economics, policy and risk of water management.
“We’ve got a lot of (scientific) talent in the province,” said Ed McCauley, a co-director of the new centre and a U of C biological sciences professor and the Canada Research Chair in Population Ecology. “We’ve got some tough problems, and we hope the centre will help put those two things together.”
The other co-directors are Dan Smith, a water-treatment researcher in the U of A’s engineering faculty, and Stuart Rood, a professor of biology and environmental science at the U of L.
Bill Bridger, president of Alberta Ingenuity, said the foundation expects industry and other governments to step up to the plate with matching funds for the new research centre and its programs.
“We are convinced that this (centre) will become a world leader in international research” on water, Bridger said.