Updated December 2023
Over 143 billion cubic metres (m3) of nonsaline water is available yearly in Alberta. This water includes water from lakes and rivers, overland flow (runoff), and relatively shallow groundwater (where known). By understanding how much water is available and where, the Government of Alberta can ensure sufficient water to sustain the environment and meet its interprovincial and international apportionment agreements while allocating (or licensing) water for human consumption, recreation, and continued economic growth in Alberta.
- water availability and allocation
- water types
- reducing, reusing, and recycling water
- water use intensity
Water Availability and Allocation
Of the total amount of nonsaline water available, about 7% (9.8 billion m3) was allocated for use in 2022 (see the following figure). Of the total water allocated, about 13% (1.23 billion m3) was to develop energy resources. The energy industry allocation represents less than 1% of all nonsaline water available in Alberta. The remainder of the allocated water was to other users in the province, such as agriculture, forestry, and municipalities.
In 2022, the energy industry only used about 21% (261 million m3) of its water allocation, which is 0.18% of the nonsaline water available in Alberta.
The primary source of nonsaline water allocated in Alberta is surface water, accounting for over 96% of all water allocations. The remaining 4% comes from groundwater. The energy industry is allocated 11% of the licensed surface water and 49% of the licensed groundwater in Alberta (see the following figure).
For more information on how surface water and groundwater are allocated in Alberta, see Water Allocation and Availability.
Energy companies use two types of water to extract Alberta's oil, gas, and bitumen resources through oil sands mining, in situ, enhanced oil recovery, and hydraulic fracturing: nonsaline and alternatives to nonsaline. Alternatives to nonsaline water include deep saline groundwater and produced water.
Companies use water for start-up operations or to make up for water lost during water recycling and resource extraction processes. Make-up water is obtained from nonsaline or alternative sources (other).
Companies must apply for a Water Act licence from the AER before using nonsaline water in their operations. They do not have to apply to use alternative water but must report how much they use. About 13% of all nonsaline water licensed in 2022 was allocated to the energy industry. Of this amount, over 70% was for oil sands mining. The remaining portion was for enhanced oil recovery, hydraulic fracturing, in situ recovery operations, or other uses.
The following figure shows the volume of nonsaline water use by each extraction technology. It also includes the hydrocarbons produced in barrels of oil equivalent (BOE).
Water Conservation Policy and Manual 025
In December 2020, the Water Conservation Policy for Upstream Oil and Gas Operations (water conservation policy) was updated. The policy provides direction on water use and conservation in upstream oil and gas operations (exploration, development, and production). The policy update emphasizes using alternatives to high-quality nonsaline water sources where additional water conservation measures are feasible.
In October 2022, the AER released Manual 025: Applications Under the Water Conservation Policy for Upstream Oil and Gas Operations to provide guidance for water licence applications under the Water Act. Manual 025 supports the water conservation policy objectives by ensuring all reasonable alternatives have been assessed for technical and economic feasibility to conserve high-quality nonsaline water, recognizing that, in some cases, using high-quality nonsaline water may be unavoidable.
Manual 025 applies to oil sand thermal in situ operations, enhanced oil recovery, and multistage hydraulic fracturing operations in horizontal wells. The water conservation policy applies to oil sands mining operations; however, Manual 025 supplements guidance in the Lower Athabasca Region: Surface Water Quantity Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca River and the Lower Athabasca Region: Tailings Management Framework for the Mineable Athabasca Oil Sands.
Drilling and completion operations, including hydraulic fracturing in vertical wells, are not within the scope of Manual 025 or the water conservation policy. Licences for these purposes require evaluation based on requirements in section 51 of the Water Act.
Manual 025 introduced a further division of nonsaline surface water and groundwater as high-quality nonsaline and alternative nonsaline subcategories. This edition of the report includes references to high-quality nonsaline water, alternative nonsaline water, and alternative water in the oil sands and in situ sections.
Future reports will provide further alignment with the refined water categories as reported data becomes available with these new category designations. Alignment with Manual 025 will lead to improved credibility and water management planning by industry while addressing stakeholder concerns about water conservation efforts and the value of high-quality nonsaline water.
High-Quality Nonsaline Water
High-quality nonsaline water includes high-quality nonsaline groundwater and high-quality surface water that support instream flow needs or are usable with standard treatment technologies for drinking water supplies and livestock watering.
High-quality nonsaline groundwater has a total dissolved solids content of 4000 milligrams per litre (mg/L) or less. Sources of high-quality nonsaline groundwater include
- shallow aquifers, where the top of the aquifer is less than 150 m from the surface,
- aquifers in sediments above the top of bedrock, regardless of depth,
- aquifers in water-short areas, regardless of depth, and
- aquifers with nonindustrial water users accessing the same aquifer within 1.6 km of the diversion, regardless of depth.
High-quality nonsaline surface water is sourced from streams, rivers, lakes, springs, wetlands, and from manmade water bodies, such as:
- canals and ditches
- borrow pits
- raw water ponds
- nonindustrial runoff (stormwater) ponds
- industrial runoff ponds in water-short areas
- reclaimed water bodies and end-pit lakes
- gravel pits
Alternative nonsaline water includes nonsaline surface water and nonsaline groundwater that is highly mineralized (but meets the definition of nonsaline water) due to the geological setting or was used and adversely affected by industrial, commercial, or municipal activities.
Alternative nonsaline groundwater has a total dissolved solids content of 4000 mg/L or less. It includes relatively deep groundwater that does not directly support instream flow needs. See the figure in the glossary to determine whether nonsaline groundwater is considered “alternative” or “high quality.”
Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling Water
Every technology used to recover Alberta's energy resources—mining, in situ, enhanced oil recovery, and hydraulic fracturing—recycles and reuses water. Reused water is classified as recycled water in this report (although there may be technical differences in the definitions of recycled and reused).
Using alternatives to nonsaline water and improving technology reduces nonsaline water usage in energy development. The following figure shows that 82% of the water used to recover energy resources in 2022 was recycled, with only 17% from nonsaline sources.
The amount of recycled water used varies by extraction technology (see the following figure).
Hydraulic fracturing operators have the lowest rate for recycling water because water is only used for the initial fracturing and typically only produced during the initial flowback period, resulting in fewer opportunities to recycle water than with other extraction technologies. But even with an 80% recycling rate, oil sands mining uses the most nonsaline water.
Enhanced oil recovery and in situ operations return large amounts of produced water to the surface (as part of the normal production process), which can be frequently recycled back into the process. Hence, the high recycling rates for those extraction technologies.
Water Use Intensity
The volume of water used does not necessarily indicate the level of operational efficiency. The AER considers nonsaline water use intensity as a measure of water use efficiency. Water use intensity is expressed as a ratio of the number of barrels of nonsaline water used to produce one BOE.
The following figure shows water use intensity by extraction technology between 2013 and 2022. Over the past ten years, all extraction technologies have reduced their water use intensity except hydraulic fracturing, resulting in a 21.6% decrease in the industry average (red line in the graph below). In oil sands mining, significant improvements were made in water use performance over the past ten years, with water use intensity decreasing by 30%. Water use intensity for hydraulic fracturing increased by 54% from 2021, correlating with increased drilling activity in the Duvernay and Montney Formations. Mining continues to have the highest water use intensity, and in situ continues to have the lowest at 0.16 bbl/BOE. From 2021 to 2022, the industry average nonsaline water use intensity increased by 5%, primarily due to the increased activity in the hydraulic fracturing sector.
Find out more about how water is allocated and used among the extraction technologies in the following sections: