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Water Use Performance

Updated August 2019

Over 140 billion cubic metres of nonsaline water is available in Alberta every year for our province's industries to use. This includes water in lakes and rivers, runoff, and some groundwater. By determining how much water is available for use, the Government of Alberta ensures that water can still be used for other priorities, such as to sustain the environment, to provide water for human consumption (including recreation), to manage interprovincial and international apportionment agreements, and to allow for continued economic growth within the province.

This page provides a high-level introduction to the topics discussed in our Alberta Water Use Performance Report:

Water Availability and Allocation

Of the total amount of water that is available, nearly 7 per cent (9.6 billion cubic metres) was allocated for use in 2018. Of this, nearly 12 per cent (1.1 billion cubic metres) was allocated to develop energy resources; the remainder was allocated to other users in the province, such as agriculture, forestry, and municipalities. This means that companies are using far less water to recover resources than what is allocated to them—less than one per cent of all water available in the province.

For example, in 2018, the energy industry only used about 27 per cent (just over 300 million cubic metres) of what was allocated to them (about 1.1 billion cubic metres). That means 0.21 per cent of all nonsaline water available in Alberta was used for oil and gas extraction.

The main source of nonsaline water allocated for use in Alberta is surface water, accounting for over 96 per cent of all water allocated. The remaining four per cent is from groundwater sources. The energy industry is allocated 10 per cent of the licensed surface water and 50 per cent of the licensed groundwater in Alberta.

More information on how surface water and groundwater are allocated in Alberta can be found here.

Water Types

Two categories of water are commonly used by energy companies to extract Alberta's oil, gas, and bitumen resources through oil sands mining, in situ, enhanced oil recovery, and hydraulic fracturing: nonsaline and alternatives to nonsaline.

Companies also use water to start up operations or to "make up" for losses that occur during water recycling and resource extraction processes. Make-up water is obtained from nonsaline or alternative sources to make up for the lost water.

Companies must apply for a nonsaline water allocation licence from the AER before using nonsaline water in their operations. They do not have to apply to use alternative water, but they must report how much they're using. Nearly 12 per cent of all nonsaline water licensed for use in 2018 was allocated to the energy industry. Of this, over 60 per cent was for oil sands mining. The remaining portion was allocated to enhanced oil recovery, hydraulic fracturing, in situ recovery operations, or for other uses.

The graph below breaks down the volume of nonsaline water used based on extraction technology. It also includes the barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) production.

Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling Water

Every technology used to recover Alberta's energy resources—mining, in situ, enhanced oil recovery, and hydraulic fracturing—recycles and reuses the nonsaline water that was used for energy development. When water is reused, it is classified as recycled water.

Using alternatives to nonsaline water and making improvements in technology reduces how much nonsaline water is needed for energy development. In fact, the majority (79 per cent) of water used to recover energy resources in 2018 was recycled, and only 20 per cent of the water needed for energy development was nonsaline.

By Technology

The amount of recycled water used in operations varies by extraction technology:

  • Oil sands mining uses the most nonsaline water for the bitumen separation process.
  • Similarly, hydraulic fracturing operators use mostly nonsaline water for their operations, as they do not have many opportunities to use recycled water.
  • Enhanced oil recovery and in situ operations return large amounts of produced water to the surface, which can be recycled back into the process.

Water Use Intensity

The volume of water used does not necessarily speak to how efficient an operation is. To measure efficient water use, the AER considers nonsaline water use intensity. Water use intensity is expressed as a ratio and represents the number of barrels of nonsaline water used to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE).

The graph below shows the water use intensity based on extraction technology between 2014 and 2018.

Over the last five years, the amount of water needed to produce one BOE has decreased the most for enhanced oil recovery producers; on the other hand, the amount of water used by oil sands operators to produce one BOE has increased.

Find out more about how water is allocated and used among the extraction technologies we regulate: