Excerpts from “Full Steam Ahead – Getting the right mix of resource management, environmental protection, and economic development in Alberta”, by John Nicholson in Sept./Oct. 2011 issue of Water Canada:
In a world hungry for oil, all signs point to growing production from the second largest source in the world.
…development of the Alberta oil sands is not going to end any time soon. … experts and companies are working to find solutions for treatment and management of water used in these processes.
…the vast sands in northern Alberta are bound with bitumen, a tarlike mixture of hydrocarbons that is solid at room temperature. Surface mining is used to extract the bitumen at the surface, while in-situ technologies are used to extract the bitumen from further beneath the ground. The process, however, requires steam.
One of the more popular methods to extract bitumen is steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). SAGD is an enhanced oil recovery technology that involves pumping steam into horizontal wells.
Depending on the extraction method and its efficiency, the production of one barrel of oil requires anywhere from one-half to four barrels of fresh water. The water is needed for in-situ extraction (that is, SAGD) and for processing the bitumen into oil.
The oil industry uses both groundwater and surface water to extract bitumen from the oil sands and process it. Oil sands operations use approximately 174 billion litres of water per year. This accounts for approximately five per cent of Alberta’s total water use.
With plans to expand oil production, the utilization of water from the river is predicted to grow from its current one per cent to over two per cent. Once water has been found and used, the concern becomes the wastewater produced as a result of extracting and processing. The sources of wastewater include condensate from SAGD, tailings water from froth treatment plants, and the existing tailings ponds. Wastewater from oil sands production contains free oil, particulate (sand), organics, silica, hydrogen sulphide, mercaptans, and dissolved solids. Water management, treatment, and reuse have become pressing issues for the oil industry as the remaining sources of water since surface water supplies are growing scarce, groundwater sources have naturally high salt concentrations, and the use of tailings ponds is heavily criticized.
With support funding from federal and provincial governments, many of the oil companies in the region are currently undertaking research to learn how to properly manage and treat water. Wastewater from the oil sands is very abrasive, is low in temperature, and contains petroleum-related chemicals such as naptha. More than one pilot-scale system has failed in meeting the treatment in testing. A number of Canadian-based technology companies have demonstrated success in treating water and wastewater from the oil sands. Here are two: Edmonton-based Titanium Corporation Inc. and London, Ontario-based Purifics ES Inc.
Titanum Corp. has developed a propriety technology that recovers heavy minerals and bitumen contained in the waste tailings streams. One process … has been described as a blend of existing Canadian oil sands processing technology with conventional mineral sands processing technology.
Another technology developed by Purifics and being pilot tested by companies developing the oil sands is its patented photocatalytic UV-activated, titanium dioxide advanced oxidation process (AOP), or PHOTO-CAT. What makes PHOTO-CAT unique compared to other AOP technologies is that it is chemical free-it does not require or use peroxide or ozone. A PHOTO-CAT system has demonstrated complete toxicity removal of tailings water when combined with CF-CMS. This allows for water reuse or the recharge of groundwater.
Companies involved in the oil sands are quickening their adoption of innovative and advanced treatment systems, including technologies from Canadian companies. It is reasonable to expect significant progress to be made in water management in the oil sands over the next decade.
This just adds to our concerns about our world’s fragility of water. Very hot topic for many people including those protesting today here in Ottawa about this. The pipeline connecting Texas to Alberta’s dirty gold will be fought for years to come. Many natural and man-made oils in our environment cause water issues ranging from cancers to mass fish kills.