Water Use

Quick Facts

  • Oil sands projects recycle 80-95% of water used. Source: AER 2013.
  • On average, in situ operations require 0.4 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced. Source: CAPP 2013.
  • Mining requires, on average, 3.1 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced. Source: CAPP 2013.
  • The Athabasca River is the main source of water for oil sands mining projects. In 2012, the oil sands industry withdrew almost 117 million m3 from the Athabasca River. This represents 0.6% of the average annual river flow and less than 3% of the lowest weekly winter flow in 2012. Source: AESRD.
  • Oil sands fresh water use in 2012 was approximately 187 million m3 (CAPP 2013); this is about 40% of the City of Toronto’s annual water consumption. Source: City of Toronto.
  • 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.


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.

Guiding Principles for
Oil Sands Development: Water

  • 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.
  • We will safeguard the quality of regional surface and
    groundwater resources.  
View the full list of Guiding Principles for Oil Sands Development

Canada's Energy

Industry in Action


Water is high-value commodity and COSIA’s Water Environment Priority Area (EPA) is looking for innovative and sustainable water solutions to reduce water use and increase water recycling rates at oil sands mining and in situ (in place) operations without environmental burden shifting (causing negative environmental impacts in other areas).

Find out more about COSIA’s Water EPA
Boiler Blow Down Technology

Boilers produce the steam needed to recover bitumen located in underground reservoirs (in-situ). As much as 80 per cent of the water used by boilers is turned into steam. The remaining 20 per cent becomes thick with salts and silica naturally found in the water and produced from the reservoir, which are increased in concentration as the water is recycled. This stream is termed blowdown water and must be disposed of in deep underground disposal wells or trucked offsite to approved disposal facilities. Through the Boiler Blowdown Reduction Technology (BBRT) project COSIA member companies are exploring new technologies to further concentrate the undesirable components, enabling more water to be recovered and recycled instead of being entrained in the disposal stream.

Find out more about BBRT