A nonprofit economic and public policy research firm is warning policymakers in Western Canada that shale gas development in British Columbia (BC) and oilsands development in northern Alberta are “stress points” that could negatively impact water quality and supplies if not properly regulated.

In a 36-page report, “Stress Points: An Overview of Water and Economic Growth in Western Canada,” written by senior policy analyst and water researcher Larissa Sommerfeld, the Calgary-based Canada West Foundation (CWF) urged provincial governments to make water policies a top priority.

“Even in difficult economic times such as these, protecting our water should not be a task that is facing austerity measures,” Sommerfeld said in the report, which was released Thursday. “It is simply too important to leave for another day.”

The CWF report identified water quality issues as “perhaps the most perplexing,” and predicted that they would likely worsen. With shale gas development, Sommerfeld said researchers are left to wonder what precisely happens to the majority (60-70%) of the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and how it could potentially impact groundwater supplies.

“The worry here is that no one knows what happens to the remaining 60-70%,” Sommerfeld said, later adding “to make the matter even more complex, there is a very incomplete understanding of Western Canada’s groundwater inventory.”

Oilsands development is also worrisome, Sommerfeld said, citing research by Canadian government officials in 2011 that found “effluent from oilsands production ends up in tailings ponds — large lakes that contain naturally occurring clay, sand, fine silts, water, residual bitumen from production, salt, metals and organic compounds. Although the ponds are surrounded by containment dikes and are constantly monitored, scientists cannot dismiss the possibility of a spill, which would be catastrophic. Also, many are concerned that toxins are slowly leaching into the earth below and around the ponds.”

On the issue of water supplies, Sommerfeld cited “Changing Currents: Water Sustainability and the future of Canada’s Natural Resource Sectors,” which the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE) published in 2010. The report asserted that “while water quantity does not appear to be a major problem at the time being, water withdrawals are not comprehensively tracked in the energy sector. If they are tracked, companies are reluctant to disclose their numbers, and there is no law that requires them to do so. In the long run, this will be detrimental to ensuring the security of Western Canada’s water supplies.”

According to Sommerfeld, shale gas development in BC draws the bulk of the water it needs from the Fort Nelson River, while companies in the oilsands depend on the Athabasca River. She cited a third report, “Running Through Our Fingers: How Canada Fails to Capture the Full Value of its Top Asset,” by a team led by Steven Renzetti in 2011, with the statement that four million liters (about 1.06 million gallons) of water are needed to bring a new natural gas well into production.

“While [these] companies are not allowed to withdraw unlimited amounts of water, they have a relatively secure supply due to loose government regulations,” Sommerfeld said. “In addition, oil and gas companies are using constantly evolving technology that improves water efficiency and recycling rates.”

The CWF report also touched on the debate surrounding the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline (NGP), which would transport oil from the oilsands to Kitimat, BC, for eventual shipment by tanker to Asia (see Shale Daily, Oct. 6, 2011).

“If the [NGP] gets the go-ahead, production of oil and gas will ramp up,” Sommerfeld said. “Subsequently, water demand from oil and gas companies will increase. As concerns over the environmental effects of energy development, as well as Aboriginal water and land right claims intensify, companies may find that securing a social license to operate may become increasingly difficult.”

Sommerfeld added that the world’s perception of how Western Canada balances energy production and the environment is critical to economic success, but warned that perception has suffered recently.

“Alberta’s oilsands, for example, have been put on the blacklist by environmental organizations in the U.S. and by some European countries (e.g. Austria, Ireland, Sweden),” Sommerfeld said. “While it is no doubt essential that BC and Alberta’s water supplies be protected up north for the sake of environmental and human health, it is also critical that environmental protection continue in order for Canada to have a social license to operate — to be seen on the world stage as a ‘moral producer’ of oil and gas.”

Other stress points identified by Sommerfeld include the health of Lake Winnipeg; agricultural growth in southern Alberta and in the Okanagan region of BC; potash and uranium mining in Saskatchewan; and increasing water demand from cities in Western Canada.