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Water Use Performance

Updated August 2019

In the Alberta Water Use Performance Report, we look at

Hydraulic fracturing is a well completion technique used to break up the rocks around a well to help get the oil and natural gas flowing. It involves pumping fluid into a wellbore to create enough pressure to fracture the hydrocarbon-bearing rock layer.

The fracturing takes place at the start of the wellbore's lifecycle. The injected fluid is usually water, and it usually contains a proppant like sand to keep the fractures open so oil and gas can flow to the well during the production phase of the life cycle. For more information on hydraulic fracturing fluids, see FracFocus.ca.

What is "make-up" water for a hydraulic fracturing project?

Make-up water is nonsaline or alternative water that is injected into the wellbore to fracture the reservoir. Since hydraulic fracturing operations do not use water after the wells are fractured, opportunities to recycle fracturing fluid (flowback water) are limited. Therefore, make-up water accounts for most of the water used.

Water Use

The most common source of water for hydraulic fracturing operations is nonsaline water. Our licensing process for allocating nonsaline water under the Water Act ensures that the effect on the environment is minimal and that the strain on nonsaline water resources is low.

Geology significantly impacts the total water needed to hydraulically fracture a well, and the formations that a company targets can influence its overall nonsaline water-use intensity. Geological attributes and reservoir characteristics vary throughout a formation, and this can have a direct impact on water use and hydrocarbon production volumes for what otherwise may be identical wells and hydraulic fracturing operations.

At this time, we report on nonsaline water use by formation or group, but work is being done to incorporate geological subsets, or plays, in the future. By looking at companies producing from the same play, we can draw more meaningful conclusions about water use and best practices in industry. Find out more on AER plays in the AER's Play Workbook.

Alternative Make-Up Water Use

We encourage companies to conserve nonsaline water when developing water management plans for hydraulic fracturing operations. However, using large volumes of alternative water for hydraulic fracturing can be challenging.

Produced water, which can be used as an alternative water source, is a by-product of hydrocarbon production; however, the amount of produced water varies depending on the formation. Formations are considered either "wet"—meaning that actively producing wells in the area can supply significant amounts of produced waters for re-use in hydraulic fracturing—or "dry," meaning operating wells do not produce water at a high enough volume to sustain a hydraulic fracturing operation. In dry formations, there is less alternative water available.

In some areas, there may be abundant nonsaline water sources available that can sustain operators' planned development without posing a risk to the local environment; where this is the case, companies may prefer to use nonsaline water, as it removes the risk of moving and storing poorer quality alternative water on the landscape.

There are practical limitations to using alternative water: companies may not have viable options for alternative water sources (e.g., produced water), or may not have infrastructure that supports alternative water use. We also have stringent requirements in place for storing and transporting large volumes of alternative water, which has led to some companies using nonsaline water because it may not be feasible or practical to develop infrastructure to use alternative water. The AER is working to remove these limitations to make it easier for companies to use more alternative water and, in turn, less nonsaline water.

Measuring performance

A company's water use efficiency depends on a number of factors—and, in hydraulic fracturing, it really depends on the stage that a project is in. While other technologies use water on an ongoing basis, wells that are hydraulically fractured typically only use water once—during the initial hydraulic fracturing operation after the well is drilled. Hydraulically fractured wells are expected to produce hydrocarbons for years afterwards without needing any additional water. This means that the water intensity of a hydraulic fracturing operation decreases over time.

The average hydraulically fractured well begins with an average water-use intensity of 0.39 in its first year of production—a number that lowers to only 0.09 after five years of production. This intensity will continue to decrease because most wells produce hydrocarbons for longer than five years without using any more water.

Hydraulic Fracturing Water Use Summary

Hydraulic fracturing operators used roughly 18 per cent of their nonsaline water allocation in 2018.

The map shows where hydraulic fracturing operators are using nonsaline water as a make-up source in Alberta. Zoom in to reveal more.

Total Water Use

In 2018, nearly 29 million cubic metres of water was used to fracture new wells; of the total water used, over 2 per cent of the water was recycled and the remaining 98 per cent was make-up water.

Since 2014, the total production from all wells fractured increased, and annual water use has also increased. Economic conditions have recovered slightly over the last five years, and so more wells have been drilled and fractured and, as a result, more water has been used. Production reached over 521 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) in 2018.

Make-Up Water

In 2018, over 28 million cubic metres of make-up water was used for hydraulic fracturing; nonsaline water accounted for almost 97 per cent of the make-up water used. While alternative water sources only made up about 3 per cent of the total, the volume of alternative amounted to more than 900 000 cubic metres—a volume that is still quite substantial and could have otherwise been nonsaline water. We saw a slow but steady increase in the use of alternative water for fracturing operations because companies invested in infrastructure to store and move this type of water.

Since 2014, make-up water use has increased by about 180 per cent.

Nonsaline Water-Use Intensity

Hydraulic fracturing companies used about 18 per cent (27 million cubic metres) of the nonsaline water allocated, while wells that have been hydraulically fractured produced over 521 million BOE in 2018. Nonsaline water use intensity refers to the amount of nonsaline water in barrels used to produce one BOE. Nonsaline water use intensity for hydraulic fracturing is different from other extraction technologies that use water on an ongoing basis (i.e., EOR, oil sands mining, and oil sands in situ). Typically, wells that are hydraulically fractured only use water once: during the initial hydraulic fracturing completion. The wells are then expected to produce hydrocarbons for years afterwards without the need of additional water requirements. As a result, we calculate the nonsaline water use intensity based on the first 12 months of available production data following the fracture. Using this shows that operators used 0.52 barrels (bbl) of nonsaline water to produce one BOE.

Since 2014, nonsaline water-use intensity for hydraulic fracturing has increased by over 100 per cent. This is likely because of:

  • New technology: Hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells is still a relatively new recovery method, and it takes time for companies to test different strategies to improve hydrocarbon recovery.
  • Varying geological conditions: Water-use intensity varies between geologic formations and within individual formations that companies operate in. Some consistently need more water per well because of the properties of the rock in the formation. For example, in 2018, nonsaline water-use intensity for wells in the Duvernay Formation (part of the Woodbend Group) was more than 20 times higher than it was for wells in the Glauconitic Formation.

Nonsaline water-use intensity is expected to vary in the short term as operators test different methods to improve hydrocarbon production.

The chart below shows the change in water-use intensity over a five-year period. The intensity of a producing well decreases by 75 per cent over these early years of production and will continue to decrease the longer the well produces.

Hydraulic Fracturing Water Use Company Data

Data from hydraulically fractured wells are organized based on a well's water use in 2018; production data, however, is pulled from the first 12 months of production, not by calendar year. This differs from the nonsaline water-use intensity of other extraction technologies, where production volume is based on calendar year. For example, for a well fractured in April 2018, the data pulled on its first year of production would extend into 2019—12 months after its fracture date. The cut-off date to include hydraulic-fracturing data in the intensity calculation was the end of April 2018; wells that are fractured after April 2018 or wells that do not have 12 months of production data, are not included.

Basing water-use intensity off of 12 months of production data has its limitations:

  • It does not account for long-term production. Wells can go on to produce for decades without using more water; therefore, the true overall nonsaline water-use intensity cannot be represented.
  • It does not account for varying strategies that can be used to produce a well, such as restricting early production in order to extend a well's operational life and increase the estimated total resource recovery. Such a strategy would result in a higher intensity in the first 12 months—not because water use is higher than normal, but because production is restricted in order to maintain reservoir pressure and recover more hydrocarbons over the life of that well.
  • It does not account for different trends in completions technology.

To make meaningful comparisons, we compare the data of companies with similar experience and expertise, based on their annual hydrocarbon production. In the graphs below, companies are sorted by their BOE production over the past 12 months. The graphs default to companies that produce over 20 million BOE per year; this can be changed using the "Company volume" filter.

The tool below can be used to search the "Company volume" for a specific company.

Water-Use Intensity by Project

Generally, companies that use greater proportions of recycled and alternative make-up water have lower nonsaline water-use intensities. However, several variables affect the volume of total water used to fracture a well, including fracture length, vertical depth, and number of fractured stages. Although more water may be used because of those variables, they may also result in greater production, which means that there could be little effect on nonsaline water use intensity.

To compare hydraulic fracturing water-use intensity with technologies that use water on an ongoing basis, nonsaline water-use intensity for hydraulically fractured wells is calculated based on the volume of nonsaline water used for a well fracturing operation in barrels (bbl) divided by the BOE of hydrocarbons extracted during the first 12 months of production from the well after it has been fractured.

The chart below shows the hydraulic fracturing nonsaline water-use intensity by company for wells fractured in 2018.

The nonsaline water-use intensity by geological formation or group for the company volume selected is shown below in the chart on the left. Select a company from the filter and you will see the nonsaline water-use intensity for that company. This will make it possible to compare the company to the average intensities of its production volume group. All nonsaline water-use intensity by formation is below in the chart on the right.

We generally expect that nonsaline water-use intensity will improve as technology advances and operators produce more efficiently from the formations they operate in.

Water-Use Intensity by Formation

Our data shows that hydraulic fracturing activity happens mostly in areas where nonsaline water resources are abundant and existing allocations are relatively low.

Nonsaline water-use intensity within geological formations are in the chart below. The left column shows the volumes of nonsaline, recycled, and alternative make-up water used by each company in 2018; the middle column shows the hydrocarbon production for wells fractured in 2018; and the right column shows the nonsaline water-use intensity for wells with 12 months of production history. Hover over the nonsaline water-use intensity to show both the nonsaline water volume used in wells with at least 12 months production and the 12 month production value used to calculate intensity.

Five-Year Trend

Information on company performance over the past five years—specifically in water use, make-up water sources, production, and nonsaline water use intensity—is in the charts below.

The "Total Water Use" chart below shows all the water used for fracturing operations within the calendar year. The "Total Yearly Production" chart shows the production from any hydraulically fractured well within the calendar year. The "Make-Up Water Source" chart below shows the water sources used for fracturing operations within the calendar year.  The "Nonsaline Water Use Intensity" figures are calculated based on wells fractured prior to May 2018 that have at least 12 months' worth of production data; any other wells have been excluded.