Mixing Oil and Water

AER water technologist Andrew Wagner explains why water is important for energy development

Canada has thousands of lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. It is bordered by three oceans. And yet competition has never been greater, nor the concern higher, over access to fresh water.

In addition to being one of the drier provinces, Alberta is also home to many activities that put a high demand on water, including the energy sector, agriculture, and everyday use such as washing cars and watering lawns. Some may be surprised to learn that water is a key ingredient in oil and gas development—without water, we wouldn’t have much of an oil and gas industry. To understand the relationship between energy development and water, we spoke with one of the AER’s water technologists, Andrew Wagner.

Companies need water to develop energy resources.

Protecting the environment, including water, is part of our mandate. Therefore, any oil and gas activity that involves water is under the AER’s authority. Oil and gas companies use water in a variety of activities, such as hydraulic fracturing operations, dust control, facility construction, oil and gas well drilling, and processing oil and gas in both oil sands mining and in situ projects. And in the cases where activity is near a body of water—like any of the 600 lakes or 245 rivers in Alberta—we ensure there are protective measures in place.

Not all water is created equal.

There are two categories of water: surface water and groundwater. Surface water includes lakes, rivers, wetlands, and streams that are usually filled and renewed by snow and rain. Groundwater is located below the surface and is either drilled for or it flows to the surface through springs. Alberta’s fresh water stores are located fairly close to the surface, usually at only 100 metres below the ground. These freshwater reserves are protected from the results of oil and gas extraction by legislation and directives enforced by the AER that lay out rules and requirements for industry.

Water conservation and management is a full-time job.

Andrew is one of many water experts located across the province who help regulate water use for energy development. Aside from water technologists and experts, the AER also has engineers and fish and wildlife biologists on staff.

Pulling out all the stops to protect the environment and water.

There are a number of regulations in place to help allocate, conserve, and protect water in Alberta. One of those regulations is the requirement for companies to have a water licence or temporary diversion licence (TDL) for diverting water for energy development activities. On top of that, staff are trained on how to assess applications for TDLs and licences. For example, when there’s a drought situation, different conditions may apply or the application for water may be denied. We also have stringent planning requirements for operators and expect them to use alternative sources of water. And of course, our inspectors conduct frequent and detailed inspections, follow up with companies in the case of a noncompliance, and may suspend water licences and TDLs if necessary.

Protecting water is a shared responsibility.

The AER regulates according to the legislation and policies set by the Government of Alberta, including water policies that support and promote the wise allocation and conservation of water, or that can dictate the amount of water that can be withdrawn. In addition to setting policy, Alberta Environment and Parks also regulates water activities that fall outside of energy development, leaving the job of water protection in the energy sector to the AER.

The Lowdown on H2O

  • The second largest glacier-fed lake in world, Maligne Lake, is in Alberta’s Jasper National Park.
  • Lake Athabasca, formed about 10 000 years ago, is the province’s largest lake, measuring at 7770 square kilometres.
  • Alberta’s wetlands, natural areas where water and land meet, provide food, habitat, and shelter for nearly 300 species of wildlife in Alberta.
  • The AER assumed responsibility for Alberta’s Water Act in relation to energy development activities on March 29, 2014. The Government of Alberta remains responsible for water resources in all other sectors, such as agriculture and forestry.
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