Updated December 2020
Over 140 billion cubic metres of nonsaline water is available in Alberta every year. This includes water from lakes and rivers, overland flow (runoff), and relatively shallow groundwater. By understanding how much water is available and where, the Government of Alberta can ensure that there is sufficient water to sustain the environment and meet our interprovincial and international apportionment agreements while allocating water for human consumption and recreation and for continued economic growth in the province.
On this page, we provide an introduction to the following topics discussed in this report:
- Water availability and allocation,
- Water types,
- Reducing, reusing, and recycling water, and
- Water use intensity.
Of the total amount of water that is available, nearly 7 per cent (9.8 billion cubic metres) was allocated for use in 2019. Of this, nearly 13 per cent (1.3 billion cubic metres) was allocated to develop energy resources; the remainder was allocated to other users in the province, such as agriculture, forestry, and municipalities. This means that energy resource companies were allocated less than one per cent of all water available in the province.
In 2019, the energy industry only used about 20 per cent (just over 266 million cubic metres) of what was allocated to them, or 0.19 per cent of all nonsaline water available in Alberta.
The main source of nonsaline water allocated for use in Alberta is surface water, accounting for over 96 per cent of all water allocated. The remaining four per cent is from groundwater sources. The energy industry is allocated 12 per cent of the licensed surface water and 55 per cent of the licensed groundwater in Alberta.
More information on how surface water and groundwater are allocated in Alberta can be found here.
Two categories of water are commonly used by energy companies 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 oilfield water.
Companies use water to start up operations or to "make up" for losses that occur during water recycling and resource extraction processes. Make-up water is obtained from nonsaline or alternative sources to replace the lost water.
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 they must report how much they're using. Nearly 13 per cent of all nonsaline water licensed for use in 2019 was allocated to the energy industry. Of this, over 68 per cent was for oil sands mining. The remaining portion was for enhanced oil recovery, hydraulic fracturing, in situ recovery operations, or other uses.
The graph below breaks down the volume of nonsaline water used based on extraction technology. It also includes the hydrocarbons produced in barrels of oil equivalent.
Every technology used to recover Alberta's energy resources—mining, in situ, enhanced oil recovery, and hydraulic fracturing—recycles and reuses the nonsaline water that was used for energy development. When water is reused, it is classified as recycled water in this report (although there may be technical differences in the definitions of the two terms).
Using alternatives to nonsaline water and making improvements in technology reduces how much nonsaline water is needed for energy development. In fact, the majority (81 per cent) of water used to recover energy resources in 2019 was recycled, and only 18 per cent of the water needed for energy development was nonsaline.
The amount of recycled water used varies by extraction technology:
Hydraulic fracturing operators have the lowest rate for recycling water because there are fewer opportunities to recycle water than for the other extraction technologies. That said, even with a 78 per cent 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, which can frequently be 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 speak to how efficient an operation is. To measure efficient water use, the AER considers nonsaline water use intensity. Water use intensity is expressed as a ratio and represents the number of barrels of nonsaline water used to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE).
The graph below shows the water use intensity based on extraction technology between 2015 and 2019.
Over the last five years, the amount of water needed to produce one BOE has decreased the most for enhanced oil recovery producers; on the other hand, the amount of water used by oil sands mining operators to produce one BOE increased between 2015 and 2018, and then decreased between 2018 to 2019.
Find out more about how water is allocated and used among the extraction technologies in the following sections: