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Updated December 2023


On this page, we provide the following performance data:

In situ oil sands projects use water in the form of steam and require more water per barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) during the first few years of their life cycle. These projects use either steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) or cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) to recover oil by injecting steam into a reservoir to heat bitumen and reduce its viscosity to a point where it can flow. During heating, the injected steam typically stays in the reservoir for a few years before it returns to the surface as an emulsion with oil. Some projects inject steam with additives, such as gas or solvents, to improve oil recovery with less steam and lower pressure.

What is make-up water for an in situ oil sands project?

Make-up water is divided into categories (high-quality nonsaline and alternative nonsaline, and other alternative sources) under the water conservation policy. The 2022 report includes these water categories.

Make-up water is added to replace the water that does not return from a project's oil sands reservoir. It also supplements recycled water because some of the water returned to the surface cannot be treated for further reuse and must be disposed of as wastewater.

Sources of make-up water for in situ operations can be high-quality nonsaline (i.e., lake, river, or shallow groundwater), alternative nonsaline (i.e., industrial runoff from within the project area, deep nonsaline groundwater, oil sands process-affected water from neighbouring mines), or other alternatives (i.e., saline groundwater, produced water from external projects).

How do we measure performance?

Every in situ project is different; there is no single way to determine which projects use water most efficiently. Factors to consider include a reservoir's quality, how much water a company recycles, and a company's ability to access alternative water sources. Project age is another factor that influences water use efficiency.

In Situ Oil Sands Water Use – Sector Summary

In situ operators used 27% of their nonsaline water allocation in 2022 for make-up water (see the following figure).

HQNS = high-quality nonsaline
ANS = alternative nonsaline

The following map shows where in situ operators are using nonsaline water as a source of make-up water in Alberta. Zoom in to reveal more.

Total Water Use

In 2022, almost 274 million cubic metres (m3) of water was used to produce about 618 million BOE from in situ operations (see the following figure). Of the total water used, 90% was recycled water, and the remaining 10% was make-up water from high-quality nonsaline, alternative nonsaline, and other alternative sources.

Although total water use and hydrocarbon production have increased since 2013, almost all the increase in total water use is because of increased recycled water use by in situ operators (90% of total water use in 2022 from 82% in 2013). From 2013 to 2022, make-up water use decreased by 5%. This is likely partially related to limits on water disposal imposed by Directive 081: Water Disposal Limits and Reporting Requirements for Thermal In Situ Oil Sands Schemes, which was released in 2012 and revised in 2019. When water disposal volumes are limited, operators must increase the amount of produced water they recycle and reuse instead of disposing to ensure their disposal volumes are below the annual disposal limits. As recycle water use increased, the demand for make-up water did not.

Make-up Water

In 2022, about 27 million m3 of make-up water was used for in situ operations, with high-quality nonsaline and alternative nonsaline water accounting for about 56% and other alternative water accounting for about 44%.

Overall, make-up water use for in situ operations has been relatively steady, with incremental improvements since 2018. The ratio of nonsaline water use to alternative water use has remained relatively consistent over the same period. The preferential use of alternative sources, such as saline groundwater, over nonsaline water has been encouraged in Alberta under the Water conservation policy for upstream oil and gas operations and the previous oilfield injection policy since 2006. Many in situ operators have designed their steam generation and water treatment facilities accordingly. The current focus on water conservation for the in situ sector in Alberta involves improving the efficiency of and the reduction of high-quality nonsaline water use under Manual 025 and Directive 081.

Water Use Intensity

Water use intensity refers to the amount of water used to produce one BOE. In 2022, in situ oil sands projects improved water use performance significantly compared with 2013. The sector used about 15 million m3 of nonsaline water (27% of all water allocated for in situ oil sands projects) to produce about 618 million BOE (12% more than in 2020). In situ oil sands used 0.16 barrels of nonsaline water per BOE (see the following figure). When accounting for rounding, this is an 6% improvement over the previous year and about 48% over the past ten years. These short-term trends show improvements and a commitment to producing more bitumen with less nonsaline make-up water.

In 2022, the in situ sector reached its highest level of bitumen production. External factors contributed to increased bitumen production, such as improved market access and high bitumen prices from increased energy demand. The production increase was achieved with a decreased use of make-up water, enabling the sector to attain its highest level of water use performance.

As in situ projects become fully operational, they require less water per BOE as the amount of water produced at the surface is about the same as the amount of steam injected. Near the end of the life cycle, mature projects often transition to gas injection and reuse as much of the produced water as their water treatment facilities will allow. This change lowers the amount of steam needed and, in turn, reduces the amount of make-up water needed.

Mature projects that have operated for ten years have an average nonsaline water use intensity of 0.18 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced. By comparison, projects that have operated for one year have an average water use intensity of 2.47 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced. Over time, in situ projects transition from a high nonsaline water use intensity to a very low nonsaline water use intensity after commencing steaming operations.

Water use performance for the in situ sector is expected to continue improving. Water use performance at the sector level is resilient, as was demonstrated in 2020 when performance improved despite bitumen production decreases. Incremental improvements are likely to continue at the sector level and for individual projects as operators make advancements in using more recycled water and alternative make-up water, enabling their operations to recover more oil with less nonsaline water. It is expected that where nonsaline water is used, there will be a transition from high-quality nonsaline water to alternative nonsaline sources over the next few years.

In Situ Oil Sands Water Use – Project Performance

The water for operating in situ projects needs to come from somewhere. Suitable alternative water sources are not available at all project locations, and some older projects were not designed to treat saline groundwater. Before Directive 081: Water Disposal Limits and Reporting Requirements for Thermal In Situ Oil Sands Schemes was implemented, only a few projects were designed with the ability to recycle water. However, as priorities have shifted over the years, most projects have made significant efforts to increase their recycled and alternative water use without compromising the nonsaline water resources in the province.

The following map shows the location of high-quality nonsaline and alternative nonsaline make-up water sources for in situ oil sands production in 2022.

Water Use Performance by Project

All oil sands projects require a combination of nonsaline, alternative, and recycled water sources. The use of recycled water in the in situ sector has steadily increased since 2003 (the first complete year of digital volumetric reporting to Petrinex under Directive 007: Volumetric and Infrastructure Requirements), correlating with the increase in production.

After the 2006 release of the Water Conservation and Allocation Guideline for Oilfield Injection, many projects started using alternative make-up water (e.g., saline groundwater and produced water from external projects) instead of nonsaline water. 

In addition, after the release of Directive 081 in 2012, more projects were designed with the capacity to recycle water. In 2022, 92% of in situ operators recycled water and reused it as steam in their bitumen extraction process. Following the release of Directive 081, nonsaline make-up water usage stabilized as alternative make-up water use increased. Between 2003 and 2018, alternative make-up water usage increased by 646%, then declined by 31% between 2018 and 2022 as recycled water use increased.

As of 2022, 58% of in situ operators used alternative make-up water.

In the following figures, you will see water use performance by in situ project, scheme subtype, oil sands area, company, project, and hydrocarbon production.

Water Use by Volume

The amount of water needed for each in situ project changes over its life cycle. Typically, to heat the reservoir, more make-up water per unit of bitumen produced is needed during the initial start-up phase (the first two to four years of the project's life cycle). Once the project reaches a steady state, it can recycle and reuse most of the water coming back with emulsion – very little make-up water is used per unit of bitumen produced. For this reason, most projects quickly transition from using mainly make-up water sources to using mostly recycled water (more than 88%). For this reason, it makes sense to compare project water use by age as opposed to calendar year.

Water use data are available between 2003 and 2022. Since fewer than ten projects have more than 17 years of operational life, the industry average is not calculated past year 16.

The following figure shows the breakdown of total water volume for in situ projects for a year, scheme subtype, oil sands area, company, project, or hydrocarbon production cohort. By selecting a scheme in the first chart, you can view how the in situ project of interest performs over time (by year since first steam injection) and the breakdown of its total water use (by calendar year).

Water Use Intensity

Nonsaline make-up water use intensity has been decreasing steadily. In 2022, the sector required an average of 0.16 barrels of nonsaline make-up water for every BOE, which exceeded last year's peak performance level. Since 2003, the in situ sector improved its make-up water use intensity by 81%, down from 0.80 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE. Although major improvements have been made since 2003, water use performance appears to be approaching its peak.

An in situ project requires an average of 2.47 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE in its first year of operation, but this intensity improves to 0.45 in its fifth year, 0.18 in its tenth year and 0.10 in its sixteenth year. As the sector continues to mature, further incremental improvements in water use performance are expected.