Updated November 2022
Over 140 billion cubic metres (m3) of nonsaline water is available each year in Alberta. This includes water from lakes and rivers, overland flow (runoff), and relatively shallow groundwater. By understanding how much water is available and where, the Government of Alberta can ensure there is sufficient water to sustain the environment and meet our interprovincial and international apportionment agreements while allocating (or licensing) water for human consumption, recreation, and continued economic growth in the province.
On this page, we introduce the following topics discussed in this report:
- water availability and allocation
- water types
- reducing, reusing, and recycling water
- water use intensity
Water Availability and Allocation
Of the total amount of nonsaline water available, about 7 per cent (9.8 billion m3) was allocated for use in 2021 (see the following figure). Of the total water allocated for use, about 13 per cent (1.24 billion m3) was allocated to develop energy resources; the remainder of the water was allocated to other users in the province, such as agriculture, forestry, and municipalities. Energy resource companies were allocated less than 1 per cent of all nonsaline water available in the province.
In 2021, the energy industry only used about 19 per cent (nearly 241 million m3) of their water allocation, which is 0.17 per cent of the nonsaline water available in Alberta.
Surface water is the primary source of nonsaline water allocated for use in Alberta, accounting for over 96 per cent of all water allocated. The remaining 4 per cent comes from groundwater. The energy industry is allocated 11 per cent of the licensed surface water and 50 per cent of the licensed groundwater in Alberta (see the following figure).
For more information on how surface water and groundwater are allocated in Alberta, see Water Allocation and Availability.
Energy companies use two types of water to extract Alberta's oil, gas, and bitumen resources through oil sands mining, in situ, enhanced oil recovery, and hydraulic fracturing: nonsaline and alternatives to nonsaline. Alternatives to nonsaline water include deep saline groundwater and produced oilfield water.
Companies use water for start-up operations or to make up for water lost during water recycling and resource extraction processes. Make-up water is obtained from nonsaline or alternative sources to replace the lost water.
Companies must apply for a Water Act licence from the AER before using nonsaline water in their operations. They do not have to apply to use alternative water, but they must report how much they use. About13 per cent of all nonsaline water licensed for use in 2021 was allocated to the energy industry. Of this amount, over 70 per cent was for oil sands mining. The remaining portion was for enhanced oil recovery, hydraulic fracturing, in situ recovery operations, or other uses.
The following figure shows the volume of nonsaline water used by each extraction technology. It also includes the hydrocarbons produced in barrels of oil equivalent (BOE).
In December 2020, the Water Conservation Policy for Upstream Oil and Gas Operations was updated. The policy provides direction on water use and conservation in major upstream oil and gas operations. The policy update emphasizes using alternatives to high quality nonsaline water sources where additional water conservation measures are feasible.
In October 2022, the AER released Manual 025: Applications Under the Water Conservation Policy for Upstream Oil and Gas Operations to provide guidance for water licence applications under the Water Act. The manual introduces a further division of nonsaline surface water and groundwater into high-quality nonsaline and alternative nonsaline subcategories.
Future reports will address the continued refinement of water categories. For more information, please refer to Manual 025.
Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling Water
Every technology used to recover Alberta's energy resources—mining, in situ, enhanced oil recovery, and hydraulic fracturing—recycles and reuses water. When water is reused, it is classified as recycled water in this report (although there may be technical differences in the definitions of the two terms).
Using alternatives to nonsaline water and making improvements in technology reduces how much nonsaline water is needed for energy development. As shown in the following figure, 82 per cent of the water used to recover energy resources in 2021 was recycled, with only 16 per cent from nonsaline sources.
The amount of recycled water used varies by extraction technology (see the following figure).
Hydraulic fracturing operators have the lowest rate for recycling water because there are fewer opportunities to recycle water than with other extraction technologies. But even with an 80 per cent recycling rate, oil sands mining uses the most nonsaline water.
Enhanced oil recovery and in situ operations return large amounts of produced water to the surface, which can frequently be recycled back into the process. Hence, the high recycling rates for those extraction technologies.
Water Use Intensity
The volume of water used does not necessarily speak to how efficient an operation is. To measure the efficiency of water use, the AER considers nonsaline water use intensity. Water use intensity is expressed as a ratio of the number of barrels of nonsaline water used to produce one BOE.
The following figure shows water use intensity by extraction technology between 2017 and 2021. Over the past five years, all extraction technologies have reduced their water use intensity, as is shown by the industry average (purple line). Significant improvements were made for water use performance in the mining sector in 2021 compared with 2020, as water use intensity decreased by 35 per cent. Hydraulic fracturing also improved compared with the previous two years, as water use intensity decreased by 30 per cent over the two years. Mining continues to have the highest water use intensity and in situ continues to have the lowest at 0.15 bbl/BOE. The industry average water use intensity has decreased by 33 per cent between 2020 and 2021, primarily due to the mining sector's improved performance last year. Fluctuations in the industry average will likely continue to be influenced by the mining sector's performance.
Find out more about how water is allocated and used among the extraction technologies in the following sections: