Oil sands mining projects use the greatest volume of nonsaline water; they 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 used as the main source of make-up water. That said, companies have used far less than weekly withdrawal limits that Alberta Environment and Parks has in place for the river.
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 barrel 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 the project’s stage (i.e., commissioning, start-up), production plans, and processes to separate bitumen from oil sands, among others. Because every operation is unique, we also look at nonsaline water use intensity and water recycling as measures for 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. CNRL Horizon had the highest nonsaline water use intensity, averaging 3.6 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced.
On average, 80 per cent (115 million cubic metres) of water was recycled by companies between 2012 and 2016. Syncrude recycled the most water at 239 million cubic metres. Suncor recycled the least, recycling 61 million cubic metres between 2012 and 2016. Although Suncor recycled the least amount, it also had the lowest water use intensity over the same five year period. This demonstrates how water use performance can be measured in many ways.
Learn more in our water use report for oil sands mining.
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 produce bitumen.
Project age is another important factor. 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 with oil sands. This is known as emulsion.
When in situ projects age and become fully operational, they require less water because the same amount of water that is injected as steam returns to surface with 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.
We looked at nonsaline water use intensity data as measure of water use performance in this report. 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, 0.21 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced. 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.
Learn more in our water use report for in situ.