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Water Use Performance

Our annual water use report discloses how much water energy companies in Alberta use—including how much water is being recycled—for activities including oil sands (mining and in situ), hydraulic fracturing, and enhanced oil recovery. This report is part of our industry performance program, which measures, evaluates, and reports on the energy development activities we regulate.

Oil Sands Mining

Oil sands mining uses the greatest amount of nonsaline water [Tableau] 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 Even so, companies have withdrawn far less than the weekly limits that Alberta Environment and Parks has in place for this river.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.

Water Use in 2017

In 2017, the Oil Sands Mining Water Use Summary [Tableau] shows that 206 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (30 per cent of all nonsaline water allocated for oil sands mining) to produce 518 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE). This means that for every one BOE produced, 2.5 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.

Suncor and CNUL Albian Sands had the lowest nonsaline water use intensities between 2013 and 2017, averaging 1.7 and 2.1 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced, respectively. Imperial Kearl had the highest nonsaline water use intensity, averaging 3.3 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced.

Water Recycling

On average, 76 per cent (117 million cubic metres) of water was recycled by companies between 2013 and 2017. Syncrude recycled more water than the industry average, at 239 million cubic metres. Suncor recycled the least, at 64 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.

Industry performance

Evaluating company performance is not simply about who uses the least amount of water. Not only is each sector unique, but both the size of a company’s operations and how long a project has been operating matter when looking at how well a company is conserving water. 

Find out why we track industry performance.