- Oil sands projects recycle 80-95% of water used. Source: AESRD.
- On average, in situ operations require 0.4 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced. Source: CAPP 2012.
- Mining requires, on average, 2.7 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced. Source: CAPP 2012.
- The Athabasca River is the main source of water for oil sands mining projects. In 2011, the oil sands industry withdrew almost 112 million m3 from the Athabasca River. This represents 0.5% of the average annual river flow and less than 3% of the lowest weekly winter flow in 2011. Source: AESRD.
- Oil sands fresh water use in 2011 was approximately 158 million m3 (CAPP 2012); this is about 40% of the City of Toronto’s annual water consumption. Source: City of Toronto.
- Although in situ production increased 14% from 2009 to 2010, fresh water withdrawal increased by only 5%. Source: CAPP 2010.
- Even with forecast oil sands growth, the Athabasca, Peace and Beaver River basins (where oil sands development occurs) remain among the least utilized river basins in Alberta.
- In 2010, 51% of the water used by in situ oil sands was saline groundwater, which is not suitable for human or agricultural use.
As the oil sands industry grows, so does the demand on Canadian water resources.
Water is an important part of oil sands production. In mining operations, warm water is used to separate the bitumen from the sand and clay. For in situ drilling operations, water is used to generate steam to heat the reservoir to enable bitumen to flow to production wells. Upgraders also use steam to heat the bitumen and the oil products for processing, and to generate electricity. 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. While oil sands in situ drilling projects do not use any water from the Athabasca River, this river is the primary source of fresh water for mining projects. Mining operations cannot use saline groundwater because the salinity interferes with the separation process; salt in tailings ponds also would hamper reclamation. Water withdrawals are high when new mining projects get started, but become more efficient over time.
Canada’s oil sands industry is a leader in researching and implementing technologies to maximize recycling and using saline groundwater or other non-drinkable water sources as alternatives to fresh water.
Oil sands mining operations in northern Alberta continually recycle over 80-95% of the water they use. Water optimization efforts have allowed increased bitumen recovery over the last two decades without proportional increases in fresh water use, and this trend is expected to continue in the future.
Producers also use brackish or saline groundwater (groundwater from a deep aquifer that is not suitable for drinking or agriculture) as an alternative to fresh water. In some in situ projects, fresh water is entirely replaced with non-fresh water. Devon Canada Corporation's Jackfish project is one oil sands project that uses only brackish water to create the steam needed to separate oil from sand.
Find out more about the Jackfish project
Water treatment normally results in a small stream of wastewater that is either injected into approved deep disposal zones or transported to an approved waste handling facility. The Suncor MacKay River project has implemented changes to its water processing facilities to further reduce the amount of wastewater generated and is demonstrating a fully functional Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) system in the oil sands industry. ZLD has a number of benefits, such as recycling more than 90% of a facility’s water requirement.