Updated August 2019
In the Alberta Water Use Performance Report, we look at
Oil sands mining involves excavating oil sands using trucks and shovels and transporting it to extraction plants to separate the bitumen from the sand. To separate bitumen from Alberta's oil sands, mining operations transport materials to large processing and upgrading facilities that require large volumes of readily available water for the bitumen separation process.
Oil sands mining uses the greatest amount of nonsaline water of all the extraction methods. Nonsaline water dilutes the salt content of oil sands and enhances the bitumen separation process and is, therefore, preferred.
What is "make-up" water for an oil sands mining project?
Make-up water is nonsaline water that is used in bitumen extraction and processing when companies need more water than can be recycled from tailings and storage ponds.
The main source of make-up water for oil sands mining operations is the lower Athabasca River. Despite industry's dependence on this river, companies are still withdrawing significantly less than the weekly limits that Alberta Environment and Parks sets for this river.
Make-up water can also come from groundwater and surface runoff within mine areas.
A company's water use efficiency depends on a number of factors, including the stage its project is in (e.g., construct, operate), production targets, and processes used to separate bitumen from oil sands, among others. Because every project is unique, we also look at water use intensity and water recycling as measures of water use performance.
Oil sands mining operators used roughly 35 per cent of their nonsaline water allocation in 2018.
The map below shows where oil sands mining operators are using nonsaline water as a make-up source in Alberta. Zoom in to see more.
Total Water Use
In 2018, just over 990 million cubic metres of water was used to produce about 597 million barrels of oil equivalent from oil sands mining. Of the total water used, 75 per cent was recycled, and the rest was make-up water from nonsaline sources.
Since 2014, overall water use and hydrocarbon production have increased because of new projects and improvements and expansions at older projects. However, rather than relying on nonsaline water, companies used mostly recycled water to meet their needs. Between 2014 and 2018, the total volume of recycled water increased by 39 per cent.
In mining, make-up water consists of Athabasca River water, groundwater and surface runoff that collects within a project’s footprint. In 2018, 37 per cent (246 million cubic metres) of the total make-up water used came from groundwater and surface runoff within the footprint of mining projects. However, because surface runoff and groundwater is not sufficient to meet the needs of the mine, 63 per cent of the water came from the Athabasca River.
Water-use intensity refers to the amount of water in barrels used to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE). In 2018, oil sands mining used 246 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (35 per cent of all nonsaline water allocated for oil sands mining) to produce 597 million BOE. This means that for every one BOE produced, 2.6 barrels (bbl) of nonsaline water were used.
From 2014 to 2018, nonsaline water-use intensity has increased by 0.75 per cent, but remained below 2.7. The increase in intensity from 2017-2018 is likely because of the start-up of the Fort Hills operation in December 2017, which had a water-use intensity above the industry average in 2018, and Syncrude's overall water use, which increased in 2018.
All oil sands mining projects require a combination of river water, groundwater, and surface runoff water sources. Companies report the volume of water they withdraw from the Lower Athabasca River, as well as the volume of water they use from groundwater and surface runoff, to the Government of Alberta's water-use reporting system.
In the charts below, total make-up water refers to the sum of water withdrawn from the Lower Athabasca River or gathered from groundwater and surface runoff. On average, 76 per cent (120 million cubic metres) of water was recycled by companies between 2014 and 2018. This suggests that companies are using more recycled water than water withdrawn from the Lower Athabasca River for make-up water. The charts below do not include water discharges (returns) from these operations to the river.
While the amount of water withdrawn from the river is measured, it is difficult to estimate groundwater and surface runoff volumes because companies may use different models to estimate these volumes. However, the AER encourages companies to report the methodologies they use to help us determine any variability within the mining industry.
Additionally, oil sands operators do not separate the total make-up water volume between bitumen production facilities and upgraders, and some companies do not have both (e.g., CNUL Albian Sands and Imperial Kearl only have bitumen production facilities at their mine sites). This difference, as well as other differences between each operation, such as the technologies they use and their stages of development, should be considered when interpreting the trends.
Water Use Performance by Project
Water recycling and reuse programs, oil production plans, processes used, ore quality, project stage, and climate variability, among other factors, contribute to the volume of total make-up water used. In 2018, the total make-up water reached a high of 78 million cubic metres for individual operators, with an average of 33 million cubic metres per operator between 2014 and 2018.
New projects coming on line can also affect industry-wide water use. In 2018, the Fort Hills mine began bitumen production and, as a result, make-up water for this project increased the total volume of make-up water used by the oil sands mining sector compared with 2017.
Make-Up Water by Source and Recycled Water Use
Water Act licensing is based on the volume of water withdrawn from natural sources; once that water is on site, there are no restrictions on recycling it and reusing it. As such, recycled water is water reused from tailings ponds and storage ponds back into the bitumen production process. In fact, oil sands operators have found that using recycled water increases their yield of bitumen in the separation process compared with using water directly from the river, largely because of the natural surfactants found in recycled water that remain from earlier contact with oil sands ore.
Water recycling volumes varied between 57 million cubic metres and 252 million cubic metres, with an average of 120 million cubic metres per operator from 2014-2018. The amount of recycled water used generally increased since 2014 for CNUL Albian Sands, CNRL Horizon, Imperial Kearl, and Syncrude, but decreased for Suncor. Syncrude used the highest volume of recycled water, averaging about 238 million cubic metres between 2014 and 2018; however Syncrude also used the largest amount of make-up water.
When it comes to make-up water, most companies will use groundwater and surface runoff volumes available on site first, and then meet any remaining need with river water. Between 2014 and 2018, the average volume of water withdrawn from the Athabasca River per operator was 21 million cubic metres and the average volume of groundwater and surface runoff was 12 million cubic metres. During this five year period, the maximum volume of water withdrawn from the Athabasca River water was 39 million cubic metres per operator, and the maximum groundwater and surface runoff was 41 million cubic metres.
The volume of recycled water does not directly correlate to the volume of make-up water withdrawn. The volume of make-up water a project needs is influenced by factors such as evaporation and water salinity, which increase continually through recycling. Additionally, the recycled water volume increases with increased production.
Water-use intensity for oil sands mines represents the volume of total make-up water needed to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE), regardless of the size of the operation.
Water-use intensity varied from 1.1 barrels per BOE to 4.0 barrels per BOE from 2014 to 2018. Only intensities for typically operating facilities are included; therefore, the intensity for Fort Hills in 2017 was excluded, as Fort Hills was still in its start-up phase and only produced a small volume of bitumen in December 2017. Syncrude had the highest water-use intensity between 2014 and 2018. Albian Sands and Suncor had the lowest water-use intensity over the same five-year period.
The bitumen production data presented were submitted by industry to Petrinex.
Lower Athabasca River Flow Withdrawal Limits and Rates
The Surface Water Quantity Management Framework (SWQMF) for the Lower Athabasca River, under the Government of Alberta's Lower Athabasca Regional Plan regulates the amount of surface water available to support human and ecosystem needs—balancing social, environmental, and economic interests.
The charts below show that the Lower Athabasca River's flow was much higher than the SWQMF limits throughout 2018. In 2018, the total withdrawal rates for oil sands mines were well below the SWQMF limits, and, as such, the Lower Athabasca River remained highly protected.
About SWQMF Data
The SWQMF establishes weekly management triggers for the Lower Athabasca River based on seasonal variability and the river flow at the time to meet the identified human and ecosystem needs. The AER is responsible for implementing these operational weekly triggers and limits on oil sands mines water withdrawals, and the associated annual agreement between companies as defined in the SWQMF. Alberta Environment and Parks is responsible for overseeing, reporting on, and maintaining the SWQMF. This includes initiating a management action or response for the adaptive management limits in the framework.
As with other Alberta flow-based conditions, the near-real-time, preliminary Water Survey of Canada's (WSC's) flow data is used; the official verified WSC data are not currently available. The 2018 information in this report is subject to later WSC verification. In, winter when gauge-based flows (i.e., flows measured by an automated gauge station) are not available because of ice cover, AEP estimates the flow to be applied to each week based on the physical flow measurement made at intervals at the gauge site. The way the framework was designed, the Lower Athabasca River flow was much higher than the SWQMF limits at all times.