Farvolden Lecture Series and Symposium 2013

Friday, October 25, 2013 2:00 pm - 2:00 pm EDT (GMT -04:00)

"Canada's Oil Sands: An Evolving Water Issue"

Presented by Professor Emeritus Jim Barker of the University of Waterloo


Canada now has the world’s third largest proven reserves of oil with about 97% of this oil in the oil sands of Alberta. In 2011, about 1.6×106barrels (0.25 x 106 m3) of oil was produced per day from the oil sands. About 715 km2 of boreal forest has already been disturbed by oil sands mining. The hot-water extraction of bitumen from oil sands has led to an accumulation of about 830×106 m3 of fluid fine tailings within tailing ponds covering more than 176 km2. A lot of water has gone into oil sands production.

Early hydrogeology investigations in Alberta’s Athabasca oil sands were conducted by the Groundwater Division of the Research Council of Alberta. The Division’s founding leader was Bob Farvolden. These investigations established that fresh water resources were limited in the Athabasca oil sands area, with saline groundwater dominant in the carbonate bedrock aquifers. When surface mining of oil sands got underway, the critical issue became the control of toxic tailings waters.  This was the focus of most groundwater studies prior to 2010, while the saline groundwater was seen mainly in the dewatering of basal sands immediately underlying bitumen-rich sands required for mine operation. As in situ production developed starting in the 1990’s, it became evident, as the initial Groundwater Division research had established, that fresh groundwater was limited and saline groundwater would have to be utilized. More recently, the saline bedrock groundwater has come back, literally, with the ingress of very saline groundwater into a mined pit. Such ingress into an active mine, if not controlled, would spell disaster for the mine. In principal, this risk was recognized in the early Groundwater Division reports. We have come full circle in groundwater issues.

This talk will touch upon some of these issues encountered in oil sands mining. It will also highlight the challenge that groundwater poses to reclamation of mined areas. The ultimate success of the oil sands mining industry will rest upon the success of this huge reclamation effort. Continuing the technical innovations which generated this industry will be essential. The speaker has confidence in this endeavour derived from observation of the training, skills, and commitment of the engineers and scientists engaged in this effort.

A reception will follow after the lecture in the floor foyer outside of the Humanities Theatre.