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Holding Industry Accountable

The following report summaries are part of our Water Use Performance Report. Find out why we track industry performance.

Oil Sands Mining

Oil sands mining uses the greatest amount of nonsaline water of any resource recovery technology. Mining operations involve large processing facilities that require a lot of make-up water to separate bitumen from oil sands. The lower Athabasca River is near most oil sands mining operations in Alberta and is therefore the main source of make-up water. Even so, companies have withdrawn far less than the weekly limits that Alberta Environment and Parks has in place for this river.

What is “make-up” water?

Water (nonsaline or saline groundwater) that is added to facilities to help process oil sands; typically accounts for water that is lost during processing.

How is make-up water used?

Oil sands mining: Added to facilities to produce bitumen. For example, make-up water can be added to recycled water from tailings ponds. Most make-up water for oil sands mining is nonsaline, and most mining projects use the Athabasca River as the source since it is nearby.
In situ: Replaces water that cannot be reused by in situ operations because the water has not returned to the surface or is lost while being treated. Make-up water for in situ operations can be nonsaline or saline water.

In 2016, oil sands mining used 182 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (26 per cent of all nonsaline water allocated for oil sands mining) to produce 467 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE). This means that for every one BOE produced, 2.6 barrels of nonsaline water was used.

Efficient Water Use

A company’s water use efficiency depends on a number of factors, including their project’s stage (e.g., construct, operate), production targets, and processes to separate bitumen from oil sands, among others. Because every project is unique, we also look at nonsaline water use intensity and water recycling as measures of water use performance.

Albian Sands and Suncor had the lowest nonsaline water use intensities between 2012 and 2016, averaging 2.0 and 1.8 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced, respectively. Canadian Natural Resources Limited Horizon had the highest nonsaline water use intensity, averaging 3.6 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced.

Water Recycling

On average, 80 per cent (115 million cubic metres) of water was recycled by companies between 2012 and 2016. Syncrude recycled more water than the industry average, at 239 million cubic metres. Suncor recycled the least, at 61 million cubic metres. Although Suncor recycled the least amount, it also had the lowest water use intensity over the same five-year period. This result demonstrates that water use performance can be measured in many ways.

Learn more in our detailed water use report for oil sands mining (Tableau).

In Situ Recovery

In 2016, in situ oil sands projects used 16 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (21 per cent of all water allocated for in situ oil sands projects) to produce 476 million BOE—meaning that for every BOE produced, 0.21 barrels of nonsaline water was used.

Efficient Water Use

Every in situ project is different; there is no single way to determine which projects use water most efficiently. Factors to consider include the reservoir’s quality and a company’s access to saline groundwater sources. For example, some in situ projects are far from saline groundwater sources. In these cases, companies must use nonsaline water or an alternative, such as produced water or industrial wastewater, to recover bitumen.

Project age is another factor that influences water use efficiency. In situ projects require more water during the first few years of operation to create steam and heat up the underground reservoir where bitumen is located. During the heating process, water typically stays in the reservoir for many years before it returns to the surface as an emulsion with oil sands.

As in situ projects become fully operational, they require less water because the same amount of water that is injected as steam returns to the surface within the emulsion. Companies can reuse water in the emulsion and add enough make-up water to their operations to account for water that has not returned to the surface. For instance, in 2016, projects that started production in 2003 or earlier, such as Cenovus Foster Creek, Suncor MacKay River, and Imperial Cold Lake, had average intensities of 0.07, 0.20, and 0.21 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced, respectively. In comparison, newer projects, such as Husky Sunrise and Athabasca Hangingstone, which started production in 2015, had average water use intensities of 1.42 and 0.59 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced, respectively.

Learn more in our detailed water use report for in situ recovery (Tableau).