Every day in every community in Alberta, we use water. When it comes to water use by the energy industry, it’s our responsibility to make sure that water is being used safely and responsibly.
In 2014, we took on responsibilities under the Water Act from Alberta Environment and Parks, and we work closely with them to make sure Alberta’s oil and gas industry meets all policies and requirements for water use. All other decisions for water use in the province for other purposes, including municipalities, agriculture, and forestry, are made by Alberta Environment and Parks.
Energy development forms a small part of all nonsaline water allocated in the province, accounting for approximately 10 per cent of all water allocated in Alberta. The remaining 90 per cent is allocated to other users such as agriculture, forestry, commercial (e.g., golf courses, gravel pit operations), and municipalities.
Making Decisions on Water Use
We’re responsible for making decisions on the energy industry’s use of nonsaline water (i.e., nonsaline water taken from a lake or river, run-off collection pond, or shallow groundwater), and companies are required to report the amount of water they’ve used for energy development to us.
Companies applying to use water must state the waterbody, project, project location, the amount of water they need and why, the rate at which they will take the water, and the amount of time and activities they need the water for. All applications we receive under the Water Act are posted on aer.ca for 30 days.
When companies apply to use water, they must state the maximum amount of water they need for the entire life cycle of their project. Companies estimate their maximum water use based on their project’s needs and a general understanding of the geology in the area. Our team of specialists—including hydrologists, hydrogeologists, limnologists, as well as fish and wildlife biologists—reviews applications for water use and consider many factors before making a decision. For example, our staff consider the amount of water available, water management frameworks under land-use framework regional plans, as well as the impact that withdrawing water could have on fish, the aquatic habitat, wildlife, and other water users.
Our decision-making process doesn’t stop there. Our staff can also require companies to reduce the amount of water they’ve requested in their application and can place conditions on them to stop withdrawing water in certain situations. For example, when a water source’s flow rate is low or its dissolved oxygen reaches a certain level, the AER can require companies to stop withdrawing water to ensure that water levels don’t get too low.
In addition to nonsaline water, companies may also use alternative water sources (e.g., saline groundwater - salty water found deep underground, produced water, wastewater, or recycled hydraulic fracturing water). Saline water is very salty, isn’t drinkable, and can’t be used for many things unless it’s treated. While companies do not have to apply to the AER to use saline water, they’re required to report how much they’ve used.
Enforcing the Rules
AER inspectors across the province regularly inspect energy facilities and their operations to ensure that companies are not taking more water than they are allocated.
When the weather is dry and water flow is low, Alberta Environment and Parks may place restrictions on waterbodies, and it’s our job to apply these restrictions to energy companies. If a restriction is placed on a waterbody, the AER will suspend existing water licences and temporary diversion licences (TDLs) if necessary and won’t approve any new applications for TDLs for that water source.
During suspension, a company is not allowed to withdraw water under that licence until we tell them they may. When restrictions are in place, the AER and Alberta Environment and Parks closely monitor water flow and will not lift restrictions until flows return to acceptable levels.
We also have a number of enforcement tools to correct a company’s actions when they fail to meet our requirements. Compliance and enforcement decisions are available on our compliance dashboard and range from warning letters and administrative penalties, to orders and prosecutions.
As part of our industry performance program, we’ve released a new report that shows how water is allocated and used among the energy technologies we regulate: oil and gas (from hydraulic fracturing and enhanced oil recovery), and mineable and in situ oil sands.
Across the entire energy industry, companies are using far less water than what is allocated to them. Of the 10 per cent of nonsaline water allocated to energy development in 2016 (or 1 billion cubic metres), approximately 22 per cent (or 224 million cubic metres) was used. That means that approximately 2.2 per cent of the total amount of nonsaline water allocated in Alberta is used for energy development.
The amount of water used has remained unchanged since 2013, while hydrocarbon production from the four technologies increased by 44 per cent (approximately 1.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent [BOE] in 2016 from 1.0 billion BOE in 2013).
Water Use Intensity
To compare nonsaline water use and performance by technology in this report, we used water use intensity to measure the amount of water (in barrels) needed to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE). Over the past five years, oil sands mining had the highest nonsaline water use intensity at 2.7 barrels per BOE, while enhanced oil recovery, in situ, and hydraulic fracturing all had average intensities less than 0.5 barrels per BOE.
Oil Sands Mining
Oil sands mining is the largest user of nonsaline water in the industry. That’s because large amounts of nonsaline water and groundwater are added to recycled water from tailings ponds to replace water that is lost during processing (known as make-up water) and help separate bitumen from oil sand. Since the Athabasca River is near most oil sands mining operations, it is used as the primary nonsaline water source by companies for make-up water to process oil sands.
In 2016, oil sands mining used 186 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (26 per cent of all nonsaline water allocated for oil sands mining) to produce 467 million BOE.
Our data shows that in 2016, oil sands mining used 2.51 barrels of nonsaline water to produce one BOE. Since 2012, oil sands mining has improved its nonsaline water use intensity performance by 12 per cent due to improvements in technology and processes across the sector.
Enhanced Oil Recovery
While oil sands mining uses the most nonsaline water overall, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) uses the most nonsaline water among nonmining technologies. EOR requires water to be injected into a well to increase or maintain its pressure so that the remaining oil can be produced at nearby recovery wells.
In 2016, EOR used 14 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (14 per cent of all water allocated for EOR) to produce 183 million BOE. A five-year trend shows that nonsaline water use for EOR has decreased by 25 per cent as production from EOR decreased by 16 per cent. This is mainly due to a decrease in EOR activity across the province.
In 2016, EOR used 0.49 barrels of nonsaline water to produce one BOE. Overall, EOR has shown a 15 per cent improvement in its nonsaline water use intensity from 2012 to 2016.
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.
Since 2012, the amount of nonsaline water used for in situ development has decreased by 2 per cent, as companies have gradually improved the amount of water they have been able to recycle during production. For example, in 2016, companies recycled 86 per cent of all water used, representing a 9 per cent increase since 2012.This increase in recycling reduces the amount of nonsaline water needed by companies.
In 2016, in situ oil sands projects used 0.21 barrels of nonsaline water to produce one BOE. Overall, in situ development has shown a 37 per cent improvement in its nonsaline water use intensity since 2012.
Hydraulic fracturing uses the least amount of nonsaline water among extraction technologies. In 2016, hydraulic fracturing companies used 7 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (11 per cent of all water allocated for hydraulic fracturing) to produce over 355 million BOE. The amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing in Alberta varies each year, depending on economic conditions and the number of wells that are drilled and fractured.
In 2016, hydraulic fracturing used 0.38 barrels of nonsaline water to produce one BOE. Overall, hydraulic fracturing has shown a 35 per cent increase in its nonsaline water use intensity since 2013. Since hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells is a relatively new use of the technology, water use intensity is expected to vary as operators test different strategies and methods to optimize hydrocarbon production.
Report data is available in Tableau, an interactive data visualization tool that shows where nonsaline water is allocated and how it is used by the energy technologies we regulate in Alberta.
Learn more about our industry performance program.