The world’s third largest oil reserves underlie 140,200 km2 of the boreal forests of northern Alberta, Canada. These proven oil reserves of 171 billion barrels are surpassed only by those in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Alberta’s oil sands deposits are located in three major areas: Peace River, Athabasca, and Cold Lake with the Athabasca being the largest single deposit of oil in the world. Only 20% of Alberta’s total oil sands deposits are shallow enough to be accessible by surface mining; the remaining 80% must be exploited through in-situ methods.
Water is a key element in the production of bitumen. The Athabasca River drainage is the primary source for clean process water. Groundwater is also important and must be managed during mine development, as a water source, and for ecologic effects. Its quality is vulnerable to the effects from tailings ponds, mine pits, chemical spills, and man-induced interactions between aquifers of differing chemistry. The Athabasca River flows north through a deeply incised valley that cuts through the overburden and oil sands, exposing the oil sands along portions of the river.
The surficial geology in the Athabasca oil sands region consists of Holocene and Quaternary sediments in a complex distribution of tills, outwash sands, and buried valleys. The reworking of past deposits has created a complex hydrogeologic system of aquifers and aquitards. There are several significant Pleistocene buried channels in the area that have been filled with outwash sand and gravel deposits. Quaternary deposits overlie an erosional unconformity of Cretaceous formations. The oil sands deposits occur within the lower Cretaceous McMurray Formation, which is poorly cemented sandstone. Another erosional unconformity separates the Cretaceous formations and upper Devonian carbonates. Saline groundwater and brines are present at depth, and hydraulic pressures of underlying aquifers must be managed properly.
Development of the Athabasca oil sands is expected to continue at a rapid pace and is occurring in a technically challenging environment where energy and water resources are tightly linked. The scale of individual projects coupled with the need to foresee and mitigate cumulative impacts to groundwater resources presents unique challenges for hydrogeologists. Oil sands mining will continue for many decades, and as we see increased in-situ recovery of bitumen, there will be a shift in focus, bringing new opportunities and different challenges for groundwater management in northern Alberta.
Mr. King is a senior hydrogeologist and Associate with AMEC Environment and Infrastructure. He has 29 years of professional experience as a hydrogeologist and currently is lead of AMEC’s Calgary hydrogeology group. His recent focus has been groundwater issues of upstream oil and gas development in western Canada. Previous experience includes a wide variety of hydrogeologic and hydrogeochemical work in Canada and the United States related to site characterization and remedial investigations of contaminated sites. Scott has been a member of BAPG since 2003.
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