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Updated December 2020


On this page, we provide the following performance data:

Oil sands mining involves excavating oil sands using trucks and shovels and transporting it to extraction plants to separate the bitumen from the sand. To separate bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands, mining operations transport materials to large processing and upgrading facilities that require large volumes of readily available water for the bitumen separation process.

Oil sands mining uses the largest amount of nonsaline water of all the extraction methods. Nonsaline water dilutes the salt content of oil sands and enhances the bitumen separation process and is, therefore, preferred.

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

Make-up water is nonsaline water that is used in bitumen extraction and processing when companies need more water than can be recycled from tailings and storage ponds.

The main source of make-up water for oil sands mining operations is the lower Athabasca River. Despite industry's dependence on this river, companies are still withdrawing significantly less than the weekly limits that Alberta Environment and Parks sets for this river.

Make-up water can also come from groundwater and surface runoff within mine areas.

How do we measure performance?

We look at how efficiently a company uses water to determine performance. Water use intensity and water recycling are used to indicate efficiency. Every project is unique, and a company’s water use efficiency depends on a number of factors, including the stage its projects are in (e.g., construct, operate), production targets, and processes used to separate bitumen from oil sands.

The mining operators in the Athabasca oil sands region and their projects are as follows:

  • Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL)
    • Horizon mine
  • Canadian Natural Upgrading Limited (CNUL)
    • Albian Sands (Jackpine and Muskeg River mines)
  • Imperial Oil Resources Limited (Imperial)
    • Kearl mine
  • Suncor Energy Incorporated (Suncor)
    • Base Plant (Millennium and North Steepbank mines)
  • Suncor Fort Hills
    • Fort Hills mine
  • Syncrude Canada Limited (Syncrude)
    • Mildred Lake mine
    • Aurora North mine

Oil Sands Mining Water Use – Sector Summary

Oil sands mining operators used roughly 25 per cent of their nonsaline water allocation in 2019.

The map below shows where oil sands mining operators are using nonsaline water as a source for make-up water in Alberta. Zoom in to see more.

Total Water Use

In 2019, just over one billion cubic metres of water was used to produce about 630 million barrels of oil equivalent from oil sands mining. Of the total water used, 78 per cent was recycled, and the rest was make-up water from nonsaline sources.

Since 2015, overall water use and hydrocarbon production have increased because of new projects and improvements and expansions at older projects. However, rather than relying on nonsaline water, companies used mostly recycled water to meet their needs. Between 2015 and 2019, the total volume of recycled water increased by 30 per cent, driven primarily by an increase in recycled water use from 2017 to 2019.

Make-Up Water

In mining, make-up water consists of Athabasca River water, groundwater, and surface runoff that collects within a project’s footprint. In 2019, 30 per cent (65 million cubic metres) of the total make-up water used came from groundwater and surface runoff within the footprint of mining projects. However, because surface runoff and groundwater are not sufficient to meet the needs of the mines, 70 per cent (153 million cubic metres) of the water came from the Athabasca River.

Water-Use Intensity

Water use intensity refers to the amount of water used to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE). In 2019, oil sands mining used 218 million cubic metres of nonsaline water (25 per cent of all nonsaline water allocated for oil sands mining) to produce 630 million BOE. This means that for every one BOE produced, 2.2 barrels of nonsaline water were used.

After increasing from 2015 to 2018, nonsaline water use intensity declined from 2018 to 2019. This decrease likely occurred because of increased use of recycled water, which offset the need for nonsaline make-up water. In addition, bitumen production increased from 2018 to 2019, which also affects nonsaline water use intensity. The water use intensity in 2019 was 9.5 per cent lower than in 2015.

Oil Sands Mining Water Use – Company Performance

All oil sands mining projects use a combination of river water, groundwater, and surface runoff. Companies require a Water Act licence to use any of these sources, and report the volume of water they withdraw to the Government of Alberta’s water use reporting system.

In the charts below, total make-up water refers to the sum of water withdrawn from the lower Athabasca River or gathered from groundwater and surface runoff. On average, 77 per cent (125 million cubic metres) of water was recycled by companies between 2015 and 2019. This suggests that companies are using more recycled water than water withdrawn from the lower Athabasca River for make-up water. The charts below do not include water discharges (returns) from these operations to the river (i.e., water use is not withdrawals minus returns).

While the amount of water withdrawn from the river is measured, it is difficult to estimate groundwater and surface runoff volumes because companies may use different models to estimate these volumes. However, the AER encourages companies to report the methodologies they use to help us determine any variability within the mining industry.

Additionally, oil sands operators do not separate the total make-up water volume between bitumen production facilities and upgraders, and some companies do not have both (e.g., CNUL Albian Sands and Imperial Kearl only have bitumen production facilities at their mine sites). This difference, as well as other differences between each operation, such as the technologies they use and their stages of development, should be considered when interpreting the trends.

Water Use Performance by Project

Water recycling and reuse programs, oil production plans, processes used, ore quality, project stage, and climate variability, among other factors, contribute to the volume of total make-up water used. The maximum make-up water used by an operator between 2015 and 2019 was 79 million cubic metres (which occurred in 2018), while the average per operator during that time period was 34 million cubic metres. Total make-up water use among individual operators ranged from 24 to 69 million cubic metres in 2019.

New projects coming on line can also affect industry-wide water use. In 2018, the Suncor Fort Hills mine began bitumen production and, as a result, make-up water for this project increased the total volume of make-up water used by the oil sands mining sector compared with 2017.

Make-Up Water by Source and Recycled Water Use

Water Act licensing is based on the volume of water withdrawn from natural sources; once that water is on site, there are no restrictions on recycling it and reusing it. As such, recycled water is water reused from tailings ponds and storage ponds back into the bitumen production process. In fact, oil sands operators have found that using recycled water increases their yield of bitumen in the separation process compared with using water directly from the river, largely because of the natural surfactants found in recycled water that remain from earlier contact with oil sands ore.

Water recycling volumes varied between 56 million cubic metres and 274 million cubic metres, with an average of 125 million cubic metres per operator from 2015 to 2019. The amount of recycled water used generally increased since 2015 for CNRL, Imperial, and Syncrude, and was variable for CNUL. Suncor’s recycled water use decreased from 2015 to 2018 and increased from 2018 to 2019. While Syncrude used the highest volume of recycled water, averaging about 249 million cubic metres between 2015 and 2019, the company also used the largest volume of make-up water.

When it comes to make-up water, most companies will use groundwater and surface runoff available on site first, and then meet any remaining needs with river water. Between 2015 and 2019, the average volume of water withdrawn from the Athabasca River per operator was 23 million cubic metres and the average volume of groundwater and surface runoff was 12 million cubic metres. During this five-year period, the maximum volume of water withdrawn from the Athabasca River water was 40 million cubic metres per operator, and the maximum groundwater and surface runoff was 41 million cubic metres.

The volume of recycled water does not directly correlate to the volume of make-up water withdrawn. The volume of make-up water a project needs is influenced by factors such as evaporation and water salinity, which increase continually through recycling. Additionally, the recycled water volume increases with increased production.

Water-Use Intensity

Water use intensity for oil sands mines represents the volume of total make-up water needed to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE), regardless of the size of the operation.

Water use intensity varied from 1.1 barrels per BOE to 4.0 barrels per BOE from 2015 to 2019. Only intensities for fully operational facilities are included; therefore, the intensity for Suncor Fort Hills in 2017 was excluded since the mine was still in its start-up phase and only produced a small volume of bitumen in December 2017. Syncrude had the highest water use intensity between 2016 and 2019. CNUL and Suncor had the lowest water use intensity from 2015 to 2019.

The bitumen production data were submitted by industry to Petrinex.

Lower Athabasca River Flow Withdrawal Limits and Rates

The Surface Water Quantity Management Framework (SWQMF) for the Lower Athabasca River, under the Government of Alberta's Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, regulates the amount of surface water available to support human and ecosystem needs—balancing social, environmental, and economic interests.

The charts below show that the lower Athabasca River’s flow was much higher than the framework limits throughout 2019. In 2019, the total withdrawal rates for oil sands mines were well below the framework limits, and, as such, the lower Athabasca River remained highly protected.

About SWQMF Data

The SWQMF establishes weekly management triggers for the lower Athabasca River based on seasonal variability and the river flow at the time to meet the identified human and ecosystem needs. The AER is responsible for implementing these weekly operational triggers and limits on oil sands mines water withdrawals and the associated annual agreement between companies as defined in the SWQMF. Alberta Environment and Parks is responsible for overseeing, reporting on, and maintaining the SWQMF.

The near-real-time, preliminary Water Survey of Canada’s (WSC’s) flow data are used to set the above triggers and limits, similar to other Alberta flow-based conditions in Water Act licences. The official verified data from the WSC are not currently available. The 2019 information in this report could potentially be revised once the data have been verified.

In winter, when gauge-based flows (i.e., flows measured by an automated gauge station) are not available because of ice cover, AEP estimates the weekly flow based on manual flow measurements made at different time intervals at the gauge site.

The SWQMF limits were set to always be lower than the lower Athabasca River flow.