• 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

Reductions in Water Use

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. 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 regulatory requirements to protect groundwater and surface water quality, and supports science-based, transparent and risk-based monitoring programs in the oil sands region.

Water and Bitumen Production

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 The industry is continuously measuring the amount of fresh and non-fresh water withdrawn.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 limit industry’s water withdrawal from the Athabasca River to a small percentage of weekly mean flows.

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.   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 Water Quality

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.