May 3, 2004

Underground injection of water should be reduced, but need not be stopped, says Alberta water use committee

Alberta's Advisory Committee on Water Use Practice and Policy says efforts must be made to reduce the use of non-saline (i.e.potable) water for underground injection, including enhanced oil recovery. The group stops short of calling for an immediate, provincewide halt to the practice, however, deeming such a move neither economically nor technologically feasible at this time.

The provincial committee has been examining the use of water for practices that remove water permanently from the hydrological cycle. Its preliminary report, recently submitted to Alberta Environment Minister Lorne Taylor, advocates a co-operative approach between government and industry in order to conserve water and address rural Albertans' concerns about potential water shortages. The group is also seeking additional input from stakeholders to help finalize recommendations aimed at reducing and possibly eliminating water use for this kind of activity.

Taylor appointed the committee last year as part of Alberta's Water for Life provincial water strategy. The group, whose members represent the oil and gas industry, agriculture and rural municipalities, as well as environmental organizations, held seven public meetings between October 2003 and March 2004. It reviewed legislation and policy, current industry practices and information about the use of water for underground injection.

The committee's review found that government agencies have acted responsibly in this area, and companies have met current requirements. In some cases, they have even surpassed them, resulting in reductions in non-saline water use, particularly by the oil and gas sector, over the past three decades.

Long-term loss of water is the dominant concern among Albertans, says the committee. Although the province has been issuing water licences since the 1950s authorizing the underground injection of non-saline water, the practice has gained a higher profile as other demands for water increase and available water supplies become fully allocated in some regions. Moreover, public consultations in 2002 on Alberta's Water for Life Strategy for Sustainability document called attention to the need for more emphasis on water conservation.

In light of these considerations, the committee says opportunities for further reducing the use of non-saline water for underground injection must be pursued. It adds that Albertans must also have better access to information about underground injection of water and must be assured that the use of water for this purpose is being closely monitored. The report proposes a number of changes in existing policies and practices.

Applicants for underground water injection permits should be required to list and evaluate alternatives to non-saline water sources for this purpose. Where feasible alternatives exist, access to non-saline water sources should be restricted in future. The committee has also recommended that Alberta's current groundwater allocation policy for oilfield injection purposes be strengthened and clarified to reflect this requirement.

The report recommends that industry carry out an immediate review of existing allocations for underground injection processes to determine actual and planned quantities required, and make appropriate adjustments. The committee believes such a review could lead to a substantial reduction in allocation.

A provincial water conservation plan should be established (as supported by the Water for Life strategy), outlining potential reductions in use of non-saline water for all sectors. Implementation should be monitored and reported on a provincial, watershed and municipal boundary basis, says the committee.

The report also calls for a revision of all relevant government policies and guidelines to achieve improved conservation of non-saline water sources. The implications of limiting the use of non-saline water in enhanced oil recovery operations should be examined as well, and options studied for addressing situations where energy resources are stranded.

Finally, the committee calls for increased research, through industry-government partnerships, on alternative technologies for underground injection which would reduce non-saline water requirements.

The committee is making its preliminary report available for public review and comment until May 31, 2004. This, it says, will allow additional stakeholder input to refine the proposed changes so as to ensure that they will achieve the desired results. It will also provide the general public more opportunity to respond to the recommendations. The committee will then prepare a final report to submit to the Minister by June 30, 2004.

The report, along with background information on the issue and work of the committee is available online at www.waterforlife.gov.ab.ca or by calling 780/427-2700.

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