The United States is now the world’s largest energy user, and is rapidly becoming a net importer of energy. Much of this energy shortfall comes from Canada. Canada now supplies the United States with 24.2 per cent of its total energy needs in the form of natural gas, oil and electricity, and has replaced Saudi Arabia as the number one supplier of oil to the United States.

North American energy integration is now a fact of economic life. Few Canadians, however, appreciate how continental energy integration is already having an impact on Canada’s water security as great or greater than foreseeable water exports.

The starkest link between energy integration and the future of Canada’s water resources is most evident in the oil sands. Unlike conventional oil, Alberta’s tarry deposits are among the most water intensive hydrocarbons on the planet. Separating tar from sand not only takes enormous amounts of natural gas but requires an average of three barrels of freshwater to make just one barrel of oil.

Unrestrained oil sand development (more than 60 projects have been approved since 1996) is slowly being recognized as a threat to Canadian water security. “In view of the pace of development being considered the Athabasca River could encounter serious problems unless there is a radical change in technology in terms of water use,” noted a 2007 House of Commons report of the oil sands. Swedish energy analysts have asked a blunter question: “Are the Canadians willing to create an environmental disaster in Alberta in order to provide the world market with oil?”

POWI has conducted research in a number of key areas including:

  • The impacts of oil sands development on the Athabasca River;
  • The impacts of climate change on surface waters in Canada’s Western Prairie Provinces; and
  • The links between energy production, water demand and water use.