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Updated December 2020


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 reservoirs so that bitumen viscosity is reduced to a point where it can flow. During the heating process, the steam injected typically stays in the reservoir for a few years before it returns to 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.

As in situ projects become fully operational, they require less water per BOE, as the amount of water produced at surface is approximately 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 lowers the amount of steam that’s needed and in turn reduces the amount of make-up water needed.

Mature projects that have operated for 10 years have an average intensity of 0.15 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced. By comparison, projects that have operated for a year have an average water use intensity of 1.70 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced.

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

Make-up water is nonsaline or alternative water that is added to replace the water that does not return from a project’s oil sands reservoir. It also supplements recycled water, as some water cannot be treated any further for reuse and must be disposed of as wastewater. Sources of make-up water for in situ operations can be nonsaline (i.e., lake, river, rain or snowmelt runoff, groundwater) or alternative (i.e., saline groundwater, oil sands process-affected water from neighbouring mines).

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 nearly 23 per cent of their nonsaline water allocation in 2019 for make-up water.

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

Total Water Use

In 2019, about 256 million cubic metres of water was used to produce approximately 558 million barrels of oil equivalent from in situ operations. Of the total water used, about 87 per cent of the water was recycled; the remaining 13 per cent was make-up water from nonsaline and alternative sources.

Although total water use and hydrocarbon production have increased since 2015, almost all of the increase in total water use is because of increased recycled water use by in situ operators (87 per cent of total water use in 2019 from 84 per cent in 2015). 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. When disposal volumes are limited, operators have to increase the amount of produced water they recycle and reuse instead of disposing of to ensure their disposal volumes are below the annual disposal limits. As recycled water use increased, the demand for make-up water did not.

Make-Up Water

In 2019, about 33 million cubic metres of make-up water was used for in situ operations, with nonsaline water accounting for about 53 per cent, and alternative water accounting for 47 per cent.

Overall, make-up water use for in situ operations has been relatively steady, with only incremental fluctuations since 2015. The ratio of nonsaline water use to alternative water use has remained relatively consistent over that period. The preferential use of alternative sources, such as saline groundwater, over nonsaline water has been encouraged in Alberta under the Water Conservation and Allocation Policy for Oilfield Injection since 2006, and many in situ operators have designed their steam generation and water treatment facilities accordingly.

Water-Use intensity

Water use intensity refers to the amount of water used to produce one BOE. In 2019, in situ oil sands projects used about 17.5 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (23 per cent of all water allocated for in situ oil sands projects) to produce approximately 558 million BOE—meaning that for every BOE produced, 0.20 barrels of nonsaline water was used. When accounting for rounding, this is a 2 per cent improvement over the previous year, and an improvement of about 13 per cent over the past five years. These short-term trends illustrate a commitment to produce more bitumen with less nonsaline make-up water. Incremental improvements are likely to continue 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.

In 2019, 13 of the 25 operating in situ projects decreased their bitumen production. External forces such as low bitumen prices, pipeline apportionment issues, and curtailment were factors behind this production decrease. Operators had little time to prepare to decrease their production, and some projects were not able to decrease their nonsaline water use in parallel. Unforeseen circumstances can also lead to a reduction in the amount of recycled water used, as excess produced water that is no longer needed for making steam must be disposed of instead of reused. In these types of circumstances, nonsaline make-up water is still needed to ensure the integrity of the steam generation and operation of the water treatment facilities at the new production levels. These factors caused some projects to increase their annual water use intensities. Otherwise, water use intensity for the in situ sector may have decreased to a greater extent.

In Situ Oil Sands Water Use – Company 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 many older projects have not been designed to treat saline water. Before Directive 081: Water Disposal Limits and Reporting Requirements for Thermal In Situ Oil Sands Schemes was implemented, some projects were designed without the ability to even 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.

Below, you will see a map showing the location of nonsaline make-up water sources for in situ oil sands production in 2019.

Water Use Performance by Project

All oil sands projects require a combination of nonsaline and alternative sources. In the in situ sector, recycled and alternative make-up water use has been steadily increasing since 2003, with a significant increase following the release of Directive 081 in 2012. After the directive’s release, more projects were designed with the capacity to recycle water. In 2019, 92 per cent of in situ operators recycled water and reused it as steam in their bitumen extraction process.

In addition, in 2006, after the release of the Water Conservation and Allocation Guideline for Oilfield Injection, a lot of projects started using alternative make-up water (saline groundwater or process-affected [tailings] water from nearby oil sands mines) instead of nonsaline water. As of 2019, 56 per cent 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 the course of its life cycle. Typically, 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) to heat the reservoir. Once the project reaches a steady state, it is able to recycle and reuse the majority 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 (more than 80 per cent) recycled water. This is why it makes sense to compare projects’ water use by age as opposed to calendar year.

Water use data are available between 2003 and 2019. Since fewer than ten projects have more than twelve years of operational life, the industry average is not calculated past that point.

Below, you will see the breakdown of total water volume for in situ projects for a year, scheme subtype, oil sands area, company, project, or hydrocarbon production cohort of interest. By selecting a scheme in the first chart, you are then able to 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 on an annual basis. As of 2019, the in situ sector has improved its make-up water use intensity by over 75 per cent since 2003, when it was 0.79 barrels of nonsaline make-up water for every BOE. In 2019, the sector required on average less than 0.20 barrels of nonsaline make-up water for every BOE, which was a marginal improvement from 2018.

An in situ project requires an average of 1.7 barrels of nonsaline make-up water for every BOE in its first year operation, but this intensity improves to 0.39 in its fifth year, and 0.15 in its tenth year. As the sector continues to mature, further incremental improvements in water use performance are expected.