Skip to content

NEWS: Clearwater River at risk from tar sands water extraction plan

Clearwater River

Clearwater River

Andrew Nikiforuk writes in about the threat facing the Clearwater River, “a 195 kilometre long pristine river that empties into the Athabasca River…” The threat to the river – “which achieved Canadian Heritage River status in Saskatchewan in 1987 and in Alberta in 2004” – is Opti-Nexen’s proposal “to withdraw 17,000 cubic metres of water a day” from the river for its steam plant operations in the tar sands.

Nikiforuk writes, “In 2003 the Calgary-based energy company now plagued with debt, got approval to build the $6-billion Long Lake project 40 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. Nexen then touted its steam plant facility and accompanying upgrader as a cleaner and better way to make bitumen. Unlike big mining projects that suck up vast amounts of water from the Athabasca River, the steam plant builder vowed to use mostly brackish groundwater to melt deep asphalt-like reservoirs in order to produce up to 72,000 barrels of bitumen a day. …But immature steaming technology combined with water-laden and impoverished bitumen deposits have given the Long Lake project unending headaches and steady financial losses. …The company’s freshwater and saline groundwater diversions at Long Lake increased from 735,000 cubic metres in 2007 to an astounding 2,239,000 cubic metres in 2009. Shortly afterwards the water troubled company announced that it would target the Clearwater River as a future source of water for its bitumen upgrading facility.”

“(Opti-Nexen) spokesman Pierre Alvarez, the former director of the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers, recently told the CBC Radio that the Heritage River offered the smallest environmental impact. Building a long pipeline to the Athabasca River or drilling more groundwater wells throughout the forest would disturb more land, said Alvarez. ‘We don’t think there will be any implications from this.'”

“But John Beaton (an ‘oil sands’ worker who wrote Alberta premier Ed Stelmach about this) and many long-term residents of Fort McMurray disagree. For starters, the application calls for between 17,000 to 25,000 cubic metres a day with room for expansion. A proposed pump house will have the capacity for 77,000 cubic metres. …The Clearwater River Heritage River Society, a non profit group made of trappers, kayakers and snowmobilers, is 100 per cent behind (Beaton). Even Tory MP Brian Jean, who represents the region, has opposed the application on the grounds that a Heritage River designation means that ‘the river will be managed to conserve its outstanding natural, cultural and/or recreational values.’ Last year Jean penned a blunt letter to the Premier too…”

A petition against the Opti-Nexen proposal to withdraw water from the Clearwater River has garnered 2,000 signatures. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Fort McMurray Heritage Park, Fort McMurray Field Naturalists, Wildrose Alliance MLA Guy Boutilier, and Keepers of the Water have also sent letters of concern.

Last year, the Calgary Herald reported that, “The project will need approvals from Alberta Environment, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development and the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board.” Fort McMurray Today reported in late-March, “According to Jessica Potter, Alberta Environment spokeswoman, the application is still in the review process though a decision is expected some time this year.”

Andrew Nikiforuk’s article is at A Council of Canadians campaign blog on this from April 2010 is at