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Updated December 2021


On this page, we provide the following performance data:

In situ oil sands projects use water in the form of steam and require more water per barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) during the first few years of their life cycle. These projects use either steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) or cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) to recover oil by injecting steam into a reservoir to heat bitumen and reduce its viscosity to a point where it can flow. During the heating process, the injected steam typically stays in the reservoir for a few years before it returns to surface as an emulsion with oil. Some projects inject steam with additives, such as gas or solvents, to improve oil recovery with less steam and lower pressure.

As in situ projects become fully operational, they require less water per BOE as the amount of water produced at surface is about the same as the amount of steam injected. Near the end of the life cycle, mature projects often transition to gas injection and reuse as much of the produced water as their water treatment facilities will allow. This change lowers the amount of steam needed and, in turn, reduces the amount of make-up water needed.

Mature projects that have operated for ten years have an average water use intensity of 0.15 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced. By comparison, projects that have operated for one year have an average water use intensity of 1.70 barrels of nonsaline make-up water per BOE produced.

What is "make-up" water for an in situ oil sands project?

Make-up water is nonsaline or alternative water added to replace the water that does not return from a project's oil sands reservoir. It supplements recycled water because some of the water returned to surface cannot be treated for further reuse and must be disposed of as wastewater. Sources of make-up water for in situ operations can be nonsaline (i.e., lake, river, rain or snowmelt runoff, groundwater) or alternative (i.e., saline groundwater, oil sands process-affected water from neighbouring mines).

How do we measure performance?

Every in situ project is different; there is no single way to determine which projects use water most efficiently. Factors to consider include a reservoir's quality, how much water a company recycles, and a company's ability to access alternative water sources. Project age is another factor that influences water use efficiency.

In Situ Oil Sands Water Use – Sector Summary

In situ operators used nearly 24 per cent of their nonsaline water allocation in 2020 for make-up water (see the following figure).

The following map shows where in situ operators are using nonsaline water as a source of make-up water in Alberta. Zoom in to reveal more.

Total Water Use

In 2020, about 250 million cubic metres (m3) of water was used to produce about 550 million BOE from in situ operations (see the following figure). Of the total water used, about 88 per cent of the water was recycled, and the remaining 12 per cent was make-up water from nonsaline and alternative sources.

Although total water use and hydrocarbon production have increased since 2016, almost all the increase in total water use is because of increased recycled water use by in situ operators (88 per cent of total water use in 2020 from 85 per cent in 2016). This is likely partially related to limits on water disposal imposed by Directive 081: Water Disposal Limits and Reporting Requirements for Thermal In Situ Oil Sands Schemes. When water disposal volumes are limited, operators must increase the amount of produced water they recycle and reuse instead of disposing to ensure their disposal volumes are below the annual disposal limits. As recycled water use increased, the demand for make-up water did not.

Make-Up Water

In 2020, about 30 million m3 of make-up water was used for in situ operations, with nonsaline water accounting for about 54 per cent and alternative water about 46 per cent.

Overall, make-up water use for in situ operations has been relatively steady, with only incremental fluctuations since 2016. The ratio of nonsaline water use to alternative water use has remained relatively consistent over the same period. The preferential use of alternative sources, such as saline groundwater, over nonsaline water has been encouraged in Alberta under the Water Conservation and Allocation Policy for Oilfield Injection since 2006, and many in situ operators have designed their steam generation and water treatment facilities accordingly.

Water Use Intensity

Water use intensity refers to the amount of water used to produce one BOE. In 2020, in situ oil sands projects improved water use performance for a third consecutive year. The sector used about 16 million m3 of nonsaline water (24 per cent of all water allocated for in situ oil sands projects) to produce about 550 million BOE. For each BOE produced, in situ oil sands used 0.18 barrels of nonsaline water (see the following figure). When accounting for rounding, this is a 2 per cent improvement over the previous year and an improvement of about 9 per cent over the past five years. These short‑term trends show incremental improvements that show a commitment to producing more bitumen with less nonsaline make-up water. Incremental improvements are likely to continue as operators make advancements in using more recycled water and alternative make-up water, enabling their operations to recover more oil with less nonsaline water.

In 2020, the number of operating in situ projects decreased from 25 to 20. Of the 20 operating projects, 15 decreased their bitumen production. External factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and low bitumen prices were behind this production decrease. Most of the projects that continued to operate in 2020 had low nonsaline water use intensity and were able to adjust their production and nonsaline water use in parallel.

In Situ Oil Sands Water Use – Project Performance

The water for operating in situ projects needs to come from somewhere. Suitable alternative water sources are not available at all project locations, and many older projects were not designed to treat saline water. Before Directive 081: Water Disposal Limits and Reporting Requirements for Thermal In Situ Oil Sands Schemeswas implemented, some projects were designed without the ability to recycle water. However, as priorities have shifted over the years, most projects have made significant efforts to increase their recycled and alternative water use without compromising the nonsaline water resources in the province.

The following map shows the location of nonsaline make-up water sources for in situ oil sands production in 2020.

Water Use Performance by Project

All oil sands projects require a combination of nonsaline and alternative sources. In the in situ sector, recycled and alternative make-up water use has steadily increased since 2003, with a significant increase following the release of Directive 081 in 2012. After the directive's release, more projects were designed with the capacity to recycle water. In 2020, 90 per cent of in situ operators recycled water and reused it as steam in their bitumen extraction process.

In addition, in 2006, after the release of the Water Conservation and Allocation Guideline for Oilfield Injection, many projects started using alternative make-up water (e.g., saline groundwater or process-affected [tailings] water from nearby oil sands mines) instead of nonsaline water. As of 2020, 40 per cent of in situ operators used alternative make-up water.

In the following figures, you will see water use performance by in situ project, scheme subtype, oil sands area, company, project, and hydrocarbon production.

Water Use by Volume

The amount of water needed for each in situ project changes over its life cycle. Typically, more make-up water per unit of bitumen produced is needed during the initial start-up phase (the first two to four years of the project's life cycle) to heat the reservoir. Once the project reaches a steady state, it can recycle and reuse most of the water coming back with emulsion – very little make-up water is used per unit of bitumen produced. For this reason, most projects quickly transition from using mainly make-up water sources to using mostly recycled water (more than 88 per cent). For this reason, it makes sense to compare projects' water use by age as opposed to calendar year.

Water use data are available between 2003 and 2020. Since fewer than ten projects have more than 13 years of operational life, the industry average is not calculated past that point.

The following figure shows the breakdown of total water volume for in situ projects for a year, scheme subtype, oil sands area, company, project, or hydrocarbon production cohort. By selecting a scheme in the first chart, you can view how the in situ project of interest performs over time (by year since first steam injection) and the breakdown of its total water use (by calendar year).

Water Use Intensity

Nonsaline make-up water use intensity has been decreasing annually. In 2020, the sector required on average less than 0.18 barrels of nonsaline make-up water for every BOE, which exceeded last year's peak performance level. Since 2003, the in situ sector improved its make-up water use intensity by over 77 per cent, down from 0.79 barrels of nonsaline make-up water for every BOE. Although major improvements have been made since 2003, water use performance appears to be approaching its peak.

An in situ project requires an average of 1.7 barrels of nonsaline make-up water for every BOE in its first year of operation, but this intensity improves to 0.40 in its fifth year and 0.15 in its tenth year. As the sector continues to mature, further incremental improvements in water use performance are expected.