The Responsible Canadian Energy Program’s objectives relating to water are:
- We will continue to reduce the amount of fresh water required per barrel equivalent of production by improving water recycle rates, using low quality (e.g. saline) water sources where feasible, and by developing new technologies.
- Safeguard the quality of regional surface and groundwater resources.
Throughout this report reference is made to both fresh and non-fresh water. For CAPP management and reporting purposes, fresh water is considered to be water relatively low in dissolved material, usually salts, and can be consumed or is potable. Biological safety, viruses, bacterium and other contaminants, do not influence whether water is fresh. Non-fresh water is relatively high in dissolved salts and is considered non-potable. The definition varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as to how much dissolved salt renders the water non-fresh.
- Over the last three years, fresh water withdrawal for oil sands mining has decreased mining production has increased. This is partially due to the timing of new projects. Water withdrawals are very high when new projects are started and become more efficient over time.
- In 2011, 2.7 barrels of fresh water were withdrawn to produce one barrel of bitumen from oil sands mining projects, which is the best ratio achieved in the last five years. This ratio is closely linked to start-up and maturing of mining projects.
- Net withdrawals from the Athabasca River for oil sands mining projects were three per cent of the lowest weekly winter flow in 2011, and 0.5 per cent of the actual annual flow. Regulatory withdrawal limits vary depending upon river flow levels. To date, oil sands water withdrawals have not exceeded regulatory limits.
- In 2011, the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada released plans to enhance environmental monitoring systems in Canada’s oil sands region. The oil sands sector supports the development of scientifically credible, transparent, risk-based monitoring systems in Canada.
- Over the last five years, in situ production increased 59 per cent, while fresh water withdrawal increased 14 per cent. This demonstrates industry is developing ways to increase production without proportional increases in fresh water withdrawal, through the use of non-fresh water and by recycling as much as possible.
- In 2011, just over half (52 per cent) of the total water withdrawals for in situ operations were fresh water. In situ operations use non-fresh water wherever feasible.
- In 2011, 0.4 barrels of fresh water were withdrawn to produce one barrel of bitumen from oil sands in situ projects.
Over time, oil sands operators have successfully reduced the amount of fresh water required per barrel of bitumen production in both in situ and mining operations. In situ operations continue to maintain a low ratio of water per barrel of production and are working to improve this performance. The ratio for mining operations is closely linked to the start-up of new mines and it has steadily improved since the most recent start-up in 2008. These improvements were achieved by using saline groundwater instead of fresh water for in situ steam generation, and by recycling water as much as practicable in both mining and in situ operations. The oil sands industry is held to strict regulations to protect groundwater and surface water quality, and supports science-based, transparent and risk-based monitoring programs in the oil sands region.
Water is critical in the development of oil sands. Oil sands operations include both mining and in situ operations. Hot water is used to separate the bitumen from the sand and clay in the mining extraction process. Upgraders also use steam for the dual purpose of generating electricity (co-generation) and to heat the bitumen and the oil products for processing. For in situ operations, water is used to generate steam for electrical generation and to heat the reservoir enabling bitumen to flow to production wells. In addition, water is used in the drilling and completion of in situ wells and in worksite camps for all oil sands operations.
Water is taken from either fresh (surface water, non-saline groundwater) or non-fresh (saline groundwater, reclaimed municipal wastewater) sources. The industry is continuously measuring the amount of fresh and non-fresh water withdrawn. The primary source of water for oil sands mining projects is the Athabasca River. To protect the ecological integrity of the river, regulations are in place to influence industry’s water withdrawal from the Athabasca River.
While Athabasca River water is the primary source for mining projects, secondary sources of fresh water include precipitation captured in the active mine area and groundwater that is pumped out to prevent the mines from filling with water. Water use is typically highest during mine start-ups and fresh water withdrawal declines and efficiency improves as a mine matures.
Oil sands in situ projects do not use any water from the Athabasca River. In some projects, fresh water has been entirely replaced with non-fresh water. Efforts to reduce fresh water use over the last two decades have resulted in increased bitumen recovery without proportional increases in fresh water use, and this trend is expected to continue in the future.
One of the key techniques employed by oil sands operators to reduce the amount of fresh water used during operations is treating and recycling the same water for reuse in processes until its quality does not allow further recycling. Oil sands operations currently recycle 80 to 95 per cent of their water use.
Safeguarding the quality of regional surface and groundwater resources is also of critical importance to the oil sands sector. Oil sands projects are required to conduct extensive hydrological and/or hydrogeological studies as part of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process. Companies perform ongoing monitoring of surface and groundwater sources that may be impacted by their operations. This data is submitted to the Government of Alberta and can be audited at any time. The oil sands sector is a proponent and participant in these and other initiatives aimed at reducing impacts and achieving sustainable water use and quality.
The industry also regularly participates in peer-reviewed and credible scientific studies such as two studies on the Peace-Athabasca Delta including; Has Alberta Oil Sands Development Altered Delivery of Polycyclic Aromatic Compounds to the Peace-Athabasca Delta? and Has Alberta oil sands development increased far-field delivery of airborne contaminants to the Peace–Athabasca Delta? The objective of these studies is to monitor the effects of oil sands development in the region. While a tremendous amount of research has already been undertaken, the oil sands sector supports further science-based studies and information disclosure on water quality in the region.