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Water Use, Quality and Monitoring

How the Natural Gas and Oil Industry Uses Water

The natural gas and oil industry uses water in many ways.

  • In oil sands mining, hot water is used to separate bitumen from sand and clay.
  • In oil sands in situ operations, steam is generated to heat the bitumen underground, allowing it to flow to the surface.
  • In older, conventional fields involving enhanced oil recovery, water is pumped down the well to force the oil out of cracks and pores in the rock so the oil can be pumped to the surface.
  • In hydraulic fracturing, water is pumped at high pressure into tight formations to open fractures in the rock, allowing natural gas and crude oil to flow to a well for recovery.
  • Once a well is producing, water may be used for dust control or for washing equipment.
  • Water is also used for construction purposes such as freezing winter roads.

Do the Oil Sands Affect Water Quality?

Both mining and in situ oil sands operations are carefully managed to avoid affecting the quality of surface water (rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and other fresh water sources) and groundwater.

Water Quality and Monitoring

Protecting the quality of Canada’s water systems is a priority for Canada’s oil and natural gas industry.

The Athabasca River is one of the most intensely monitored bodies of water in the world for water quality, quantity and aquatic ecosystems health.

Oil Sands Water Regulations

All new oil sands projects require producers to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment as part of the regulatory approvals process. These detailed studies require an assessment of cumulative environmental effects and plans to mitigate adverse effects. Extensive water studies are carried out as part of the process and operators must perform ongoing monitoring of surface and groundwater that may be impacted by operations.

Water data is collected through various federal and provincial agencies to detect any effects of oil sands development on water quality. The Government of Alberta has been monitoring water quality in the region since the early 1970s.

Good Data, Better Water Decisions: The Alberta Water Tool

New online tool provides direct access to information needed for sustainable water management decisions in Alberta.

Did you know?

Oil sands companies recycle between 75 to 86 per cent of water used in mining and in situ operations.

Source: Alberta Energy Regulator

Water Monitoring and Testing in the Oil Sands

A Surface Water Quality Management Framework was developed as part of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP). Water quality triggers and limits are identified to give advance notice of unfavourable trends and establish water quality limits that must not be exceeded. A management response is required if triggers or limits are exceeded.

The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) is an industry-funded initiative focused on water quality testing in the oil sands region. RAMP is a multi-stakeholder environmental monitoring program, with the intent to integrate aquatic monitoring activities so long-term trends, regional issues and cumulative effects related to oil sands and other development can be identified and addressed.

Industry in Action: The Water Technology Development Centre

The industry-supported Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC) opened in 2019 at Suncor’s Firebag site. This advanced water research facility is attached to an operating in situ operation, allowing technology testing under real-world operating conditions, speeding the development and implementation of new water treatment technologies. 

Basil, a biochemical engineer working in Canada’s oil sands industry, explains how he is helping build the WTDC in northeastern Alberta. The facility allows operators to efficiently test the development and implementation of new water treatment technologies in the industry.

Oil and the Athabasca River

The Athabasca River has always had measurable levels of naturally occurring oil sands-derived hydrocarbon compounds, because bitumen from exposed oil sands along the riverbank seeps naturally into the river. The aquatic ecosystem in the lower Athabasca River has adapted to this natural environment. Groundwater in the region also contains hydrocarbon compounds and other components because groundwater is naturally in contact with bitumen.

Water Priorities

A challenge facing the industry is to reduce fresh water use per barrel of oil or natural gas produced, called water use intensity. The majority of water used by industry can be recycled and reused multiple times, thereby reducing the demand for fresh water from natural sources. Research and development of technologies to improve water reuse and recycling rates remains a priority.