Water Use Performance

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Water

It’s our job to ensure that Alberta’s energy industry uses water responsibly. Decisions around water use for other purposes, including municipalities, agriculture, and forestry, are made by Alberta Environment and Parks.

In Alberta, two types of water are commonly used by energy companies—nonsaline and alternative. Companies must apply for our approval before using nonsaline water in their operations. They do not have to apply to use alternative water, but must report how much they’re using.

Approximately 10 per cent of all water allocated by Alberta Environment and Parks in 2016 was allocated to the energy industry. The remaining 90 per cent was allocated to other users such as agriculture, forestry, commercial (e.g., golf courses and gravel pit operations), and municipalities.

How we make decisions on water use
Companies applying to use water must disclose details including the

  • waterbodies they are taking water from,
  • amount of water they need and why,
  • rate at which they will take the water,
  • how long they need to use the water, and
  • what exactly they need the water for.

We share all Water Act applications for 30 days on our public notice of application page and encourage public participation in our review.

Next, our specialists—hydrologists, hydrogeologists, limnologists, as well as fish and wildlife biologists—review these applications. We consider many factors, including the amount of water available, water management frameworks under land-use framework regional plans set by the Government of Alberta, and the impact it might have on fish, the aquatic habitat, wildlife, and other water users.

Our inspectors across Alberta regularly inspect energy facilities to ensure that companies are not using more water than what we allow. If a company isn’t meeting our requirements, we’ll apply one of our many enforcement tools.

Water use over a project’s life cycle
Companies applying to use water must state the maximum amount they’ll need for their project’s entire life cycle. Once a project becomes operational, a company’s water use often becomes lower. This happens for a number of reasons. The company might have a better understanding of the site’s geology or secure alternative sources of water. It may also be recycling nonsaline water.

Every year, we share how much water the energy industry is using, including how much water is being recycled. Read our Water Use Performance Report to find out which companies are meeting our requirements.

Water use performance

It’s our job to ensure that Alberta’s precious water resources are being used responsibly by the energy industry. But what does strong water use performance look like? Are companies using water responsibly?

Released in May 2017, our Water Use Performance Report shows how water is allocated and used to recover oil, gas, and oil sands resources. We have recently added company water use data for oil sands mining and in situ to the report.

This report is part of our larger Industry Performance Program, which measures, evaluates, and reports on the energy development activities that we regulate.

What we found


Companies are using far less water than what is allocated to them. In 2016, energy development accounted for 10 per cent (or 1 billion cubic metres) of all nonsaline water allocated in Alberta. However, the energy industry only used approximately 22 per cent (224 million cubic metres) of that amount. 

To compare nonsaline water use across the different industry sectors, we used water use intensity to measure the amount of water (in barrels) needed to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) between 2012 and 2016. In all, oil sands mining had the highest nonsaline water use intensity at 2.6 barrels per BOE over the past five years. Enhanced oil recovery, in situ, and hydraulic fracturing all had average intensities less than 0.5 barrels per BOE.

Water use by technology

Click on a topic to find out how water is allocated and used among the technologies we regulate:

Reducing, reusing, and recycling water

Recycling water is an important part of the energy industry. Every industry used to extract Alberta’s energy resources—including mining, in situ, enhanced oil recovery (EOR), and hydraulic fracturing recycles water.

EOR and in situ
In 2016, roughly 90 per cent of all water used was recycled by these technologies. Both EOR and in situ can recycle large amounts of water; both technologies operate on a cycle where water (for EOR) and steam (for in situ) is continuously injected into the same wells. As a result, large amounts of water return to the surface. This water can be captured and reused to produce more oil or bitumen.

Because most of the water can be captured and reused, companies only need to add enough water to each cycle (called “make-up water”).

Hydraulic fracturing
Approximately 6 per cent of all water used for hydraulic fracturing in 2016 was recycled. The remaining water was made up of nonsaline water (93 per cent) and alternative water (1 per cent). Because hydraulic fracturing is completed only once on a single well, recycling water looks slightly different. A company must store and transport the water to be used on another site, which can be located many kilometres away.

There are few options for storing and transporting large volumes of used fracturing water and alternative water sources; water used for hydraulic fracturing is classified as oilfield waste. As a result, reusing fracture fluids is more challenging, so companies typically dispose of most of the water they’ve used by injecting it deep underground into approved waste disposal wells.

Oil sands mining
In 2016, approximately 80 per cent of all nonsaline water used in oil sands mining was recycled from tailings ponds.

Our report data

Report data is available in Tableau, an interactive data visualization tool that allows users to filter and manipulate datasets.

Learn more about our industry performance program.