Updated November 2022
On this page, we provide the following performance data:
Oil sands mining involves excavating oil sands using trucks and shovels and transporting it to extraction plants to separate the bitumen from the sand. Large amounts of readily available water are needed for processing and upgrading facilities to separate bitumen from Alberta's oil sands.
Of all the extraction methods, oil sands mining uses the most nonsaline water. Nonsaline water is preferred because it dilutes the salt in the oil sands and enhances the bitumen separation process.
What is make-up water for an oil sands mining project?
Make-up water is nonsaline water used in bitumen extraction and processing when companies need more water than can be recycled from tailings and storage ponds.
The lower Athabasca River is the primary source of make-up water for oil sands mining. Despite the industry's dependence on this river for nonsaline water, companies withdraw significantly less water than the weekly limits set by Alberta Environment and Parks.
Make-up water also comes from groundwater and surface runoff within a mine site.
How do we measure performance?
We look at how efficiently a company uses water to determine performance. Water use intensity and water recycling are used to indicate efficiency. Every project is unique, and a company's water use efficiency depends on several factors, including the project stage (e.g., construct, operate), production targets, and processes used to separate bitumen from oil sands.
The mining operators in the Athabasca oil sands region and their projects are as follows:
- Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL)
- Horizon mine
- Canadian Natural Upgrading Limited (CNUL)
- Albian Sands (Jackpine and Muskeg River mines)
- Imperial Oil Resources Limited (Imperial)
- Kearl mine
- Suncor Energy Incorporated (Suncor)
- Base Plant (Millennium and North Steepbank mines)
- Suncor Fort Hills
- Fort Hills mine
- Syncrude Canada Limited (Syncrude)
- Mildred Lake mine
- Aurora North mine
Oil sands mining operators used about 23 per cent of their nonsaline water allocation in 2021 (see the following figure).
The following map shows where in Alberta oil sands mining operators are withdrawing nonsaline water as a source of make-up water. Zoom in to see more.
Total Water Use
In 2021, just over 968 million cubic metres (m3) of water was used to produce about 646 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) from oil sands mining. The 2021 production volume is higher than 2020 (604 million BOE) and 2019 (630 million BOE). See the following figure. Of the total water used, 80 per cent was recycled, and the rest was make-up water from nonsaline sources.
Overall hydrocarbon production increased from 2017 to 2021 because of new projects coming online and improvements and expansions at older projects; however, hydrocarbon production slightly decreased in 2020. Water use increased from 2017 to 2020, then decreased in 2021. Rather than relying on nonsaline water, companies mostly used recycled water to meet their needs. Even though recycled water use decreased in 2020, it increased by 27 per cent between 2017 and 2021.
The year 2020 was an anomaly for the oil sands mining sector. Oil sands production was lower in 2020 compared with previous years because of the global price decrease for oil and decreased demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, 2020 was a very wet year with more precipitation than previous years, resulting in more surface runoff at the mine sites. This extra surface runoff led to an increase in the make-up water volume in 2020 compared with previous years. Typically, surface runoff within the oil sands mine areas is not released but stored in ponds. These volumes are reported as licensed withdrawals or diversions regardless of whether the volumes are required for operations.
In oil sands mining, make-up water consists of Athabasca River water, groundwater, and surface runoff that collects within a project's footprint. Surface water bodies that fall within the mine footprint and surficial aquifers that are pumped for mine dewatering are also reported as licensed withdrawals or diversions. The removal of these waters is necessary to manage water in the mine and around the mine site and are frequently used in processing operations since this water must be handled anyways. They ultimately offset makeup water from the Athabasca River or other sources.
In 2021, 43 per cent (85 million m3) of the total make‑up water used came from groundwater and surface runoff and 57 per cent (113 million m3) from the Athabasca River. Athabasca River water is used to supplement groundwater and surface runoff used to meet the needs of the mines. The increase in make-up water usage in 2020 resulted from the increased precipitation in the region and the amount of surface runoff and groundwater that had to be managed (used) at the mine sites.
Except for 2020, between 2017 and 2021, the volume of Athabasca River water used as make-up water exceeded the volume from surface runoff and groundwater. Since 2018, the volume of Athabasca River water used as make-up water has decreased yearly (18 per cent decrease from 2017 to 2021).
Water use intensity refers to the amount of water used to produce one BOE. In 2021, oil sands mining used 198 million m3 of nonsaline water (23 per cent of all nonsaline water allocated for oil sands mining) to produce 646 million BOE. For each BOE produced, oil sands mining used 1.9 barrels of nonsaline water (see the following figure).
From 2018 to 2019, nonsaline water use intensity declined and then increased in 2020. The increase in 2020 occurred because of increased precipitation in the oil sands region, which led to a large volume of surface runoff and groundwater use. In addition, bitumen production decreased in 2020, which affects nonsaline water use intensity. In 2021, the water use intensity fell to 1.92, the lowest intensity in five years. This reduction in water use intensity is attributable to an increase in hydrocarbon production and a decrease in make-up water use. The water use intensity in 2021 was 23 per cent lower than in 2017.
All oil sands mining projects use a combination of river water, groundwater, and surface runoff. Companies require a Water Act licence to use any of these sources, and they report the volume of water withdrawn to the Government of Alberta's water use reporting system.
In the following figures, total make-up water refers to the sum of water withdrawn from the lower Athabasca River and gathered from groundwater and surface runoff. On average, between 2017 and 2021, 76 per cent (127 million m3) of water used was recycled by individual companies. During the same period, individual companies used an annual average of 39 million m3 of nonsaline make-up water. This difference shows that companies use more recycled water than water from the lower Athabasca River for make-up water. The following figures do not include nonprocess-affected water discharges (returns) from these operations to the river (i.e., water use is not withdrawals minus returns).
While the amount of water withdrawn from the river is measured, it is difficult to estimate groundwater and surface runoff volumes because companies use different models to estimate these volumes. However, the AER encourages companies to report the methodologies they use to help us determine any variability within the mining industry.
Additionally, oil sands operators do not separate the total make-up water volume between bitumen production facilities and upgraders, and some companies do not have both (e.g., CNUL Albian Sands and Imperial Kearl only have bitumen production facilities at their mine sites). This difference, and other differences between each operation, such as the technologies they use and their stages of development, should be considered when interpreting the trends.
Water Use Performance by Project
Water recycling and reuse programs, oil production plans, processes used, ore quality, project stage, and climate variability, among other factors, contribute to the volume of total make-up water used. The average make-up water used per operator between 2017 and 2021 was 39 million m3. Total make-up water usage among individual operators ranged from 20 to 70 million m3 in 2021.
New projects starting up can affect industry-wide water use. In 2018, the Suncor Fort Hills mine began bitumen production and, as a result, make-up water for this project increased the total volume of make-up water used by the oil sands mining sector compared with 2017.
Make-Up Water by Source and Recycled Water Use
Water Act licensing is based on the volume of water withdrawn from natural sources. Once that water is on site, there are no restrictions on recycling and reusing it. Thus, water from tailings ponds and storage ponds is recycled and reused in the bitumen production process. Oil sands operators have found that using recycled water increases the bitumen yield in the separation process compared with using water directly from the river, largely because of the residual surfactants found in recycled process water.
From 2017 to 2021, water recycling volumes varied between 45 and 274 million m3 and averaged 127 million m3 per operator. Since 2017, the amount of recycled water used by CNRL, Imperial, and CNUL has increased. Fort Hills, Syncrude, and Suncor's recycled water use varied from 2017 to 2021. Syncrude used the most recycled water, averaging about 252 million m3 between 2017 and 2021, and the company also used the most make-up water in each of these years.
When it comes to make-up water, most companies use groundwater and surface runoff available on site first, then meet any remaining needs with river water. From 2017 to 2021, the average volume of water withdrawn from the Athabasca River per operator was 23 million m3, and the average volume of groundwater and surface runoff was 16 million m3. From 2017 to 2021, the maximum water withdrawal by an operator from the Athabasca River was 40 million m3 (2019). The maximum groundwater and surface runoff used by an operator between 2017 and 2021 was 59 million m3 (2020).
The volume of recycled water does not directly correlate to the volume of make-up water withdrawn. The volume of make-up water a project needs is influenced by factors such as evaporation and water salinity that increase with recycling. Additionally, recycled water volume increases with increased production.
Water use intensity for oil sands mines represents the volume of total make-up water needed to produce one BOE regardless of the size of the operation.
From 2017 to 2021, water use intensity varied from 1.15 to 4.56 BOE. Only intensities for fully operational facilities are included; therefore, the intensity for Suncor Fort Hills in 2017 was excluded because the mine was still in its start-up phase and only produced a small volume of bitumen in December 2017. From 2017 to 2021, Syncrude had the highest water use intensity, and Suncor had the lowest intensity from 2017 to 2019. In 2020 CNUL had the lowest water use intensity, and in 2021, Imperial had the lowest water use intensity.
The bitumen production data were submitted by industry to Petrinex and reported by the AER in ST39: Alberta Mineable Oil Sands Plant Statistics Monthly Supplement.
The Surface Water Quantity Management Framework (SWQMF) for the lower Athabasca River, under the Government of Alberta's Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, regulates the amount of surface water available to support human and ecosystem needs — balancing social, environmental, and economic interests.
The following figures show that the lower Athabasca River's flow was much higher than the framework limits throughout 2021. In 2021, the total withdrawal rates for oil sands mines were well below the framework limits, and as such, the lower Athabasca River remained highly protected.
About SWQMF Data
The SWQMF establishes weekly management triggers for the lower Athabasca River based on seasonal variability and the river flow to meet the identified human and ecosystem needs. The AER is responsible for implementing these weekly operational triggers and limits on oil sands mine water withdrawals and the associated annual agreement between companies defined in the SWQMF. Alberta Environment and Parks is responsible for overseeing, reporting on, and maintaining the SWQMF.
The near-real-time preliminary Water Survey of Canada's (WSC's) flow data are used to set the above triggers and limits, like other Alberta flow-based conditions in Water Act licences. The official verified data from the WSC are not currently available; therefore, the 2021 information in this report might change once the data have been verified.
In winter, when gauge-based flows (i.e., flows measured by an automated gauge station) are not available because of ice cover, Alberta Environment and Parks estimates the weekly flow based on manual flow measurements made at different time intervals at the gauge site.
The SWQMF limits were set to always be lower than the lower Athabasca River flow.