Optimal Water Management

A challenge facing Canada's oil and natural gas industry is reducing fresh water use per barrel of production while continuing to develop resources. Most of the water used can be stored and reused multiple times.

Industrial use of fresh water is strictly regulated in Canada. A license, or permit, is required to access surface water or groundwater, and the operator is responsible for monitoring and reporting the volume used. Each provincial government closely regulates the amount of water licensed for use and must be satisfied that the amount being withdrawn is sustainable. Licenses can be suspended in times of low flow or drought.

Reducing water use

Our industry continues to look for new ways to reduce the amount of water needed to produce a barrel of oil or bitumen. The oil sands operators, for example, are leaders in researching and implementing technologies to maximize water recycling. Improvements in fresh water use intensity in oil sands in situ operations illustrate in real terms how innovation can reduce the need for fresh water. Some of the options in situ operators are exploring involve solvent injection, improved water treatment and boiler technologies that allow more water to be recycled when creating steam for injection. For example, COSIA's Water Environment Priority Area (EPA) is looking for innovative and sustainable solutions to reduce water use and increase water recycling rates at oil sands mining and in situ operations.

Oil sands mining operators are also taking action to reduce fresh water requirements. These include increased recycling of water from mine tailings and developing a non-aqueous bitumen extraction process. Mining operators also work cooperatively to co-ordinate water withdrawals from the Athabasca River (the water source for mining projects) during critical winter low flow periods.

Fresh water alternatives

There are several potential sources of water for oil and gas development. Alternatives to surface and fresh groundwater include:

  • Saline groundwater
  • Low-quality non-saline groundwater
  • Reclaimed water from municipal wastewater treatment facilities
  • Reuse of wastewater from other oil and gas activities, such as flowback, produced water and mine tailings

Use of these alternative water sources depends on the location and nature of the operation and is not appropriate in all cases.

To effectively use alternative water sources, significant infrastructure such as water storage facilities, pipelines and/or deep saline wells are required. In Alberta and northeastern British Columbia, our industry is entering many new natural gas and tight oil fields. As these production areas are developed and begin to mature, economies of scale will support increased construction of infrastructure to enable more reuse and recycling of water. Infrastructure to access saline groundwater, often deep underground and requiring special containment and handling for environmental and public safety, requires a detailed understanding of source reservoirs and that operators undergo lengthy approval and construction timelines.

Members in Action

Using tailings water for in situ make-up water

Beginning in February 2013, Suncor Energy implemented an industry-leading process to send tailings water from its oil sands base plant through an existing pipeline to Firebag to be used as make-up water in its in situ operations. Reusing tailings water for the in situ extraction process is new not only to Suncor, but also to the entire industry.

Through this initiative, Suncor has demonstrated that reusing water from the end of one project's cycle to another part of the company's business improves Suncor's water management practices over a larger geographical area and can reduce overall regional fresh water use. Suncor has cleared the technical, regulatory and operational hurdles to allow sharing of recycled tailings between its operations and is further expanding the project by collaborating with industry partners to send Suncor's tailings water to other in situ operators to reduce regional water demand across the industry.