Legal Header

Updated December 2021


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. Large amounts of readily available water are needed for processing and upgrading facilities to separate bitumen from Alberta's oil sands

Of all the extraction methods, oil sands mining uses the most nonsaline water. Nonsaline water is preferred because it dilutes the salt in the oil sands and enhances the bitumen separation process.

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

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

The lower Athabasca River is the primary source of make-up water for oil sands mining. Despite the industry's dependence on this river for nonsaline water, companies withdraw significantly less water than the weekly limits set by Alberta Environment and Parks.

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

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 several factors, including the project stage (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 about 32 per cent of their nonsaline water allocation in 2020 (see the following figure).

The following map 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 2020, just over one billion cubic metres (m3) of water was used to produce about 604 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) from oil sands mining, down from 2019 production of 630 million BOE (see the following figure). This decrease in oil sands production is the first since 2016 (2016 production was 4.7 million BOE less than the 2015 level). Of the total water used, 73 per cent was recycled, and the rest was make-up water from nonsaline sources.

Overall water use and hydrocarbon production have increased from 2016 to 2019 because of new projects coming online and improvements and expansions at older projects. Water use was similar in 2019 and 2020, but hydrocarbon production decreased in 2020. Rather than relying on nonsaline water, companies used mostly recycled water to meet their needs. Even though recycled water use decreased in 2020, it increased by 20 per cent between 2016 and 2020.

The year 2020 was an anomaly for the oil sands mining sector. Oil sands production was lower in 2020 compared with previous years because of the global price decrease for oil and decreased demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, 2020 was a very wet year with more precipitation than previous years, resulting in more surface runoff at the mine sites. This extra surface runoff led to an increase in the make-up water volume in 2020 compared with previous years.

Make-Up Water

In oil sands mining, make-up water consists of Athabasca River water, groundwater, and surface runoff that collects within a project's footprint. In 2020, 57 per cent (158 million m3) of the total make‑up water used came from groundwater and surface runoff and 43 per cent (121 million m3) from the Athabasca River. Athabasca River water is used because groundwater and surface runoff are insufficient to meet the needs of the mines. The increase in make-up water usage in 2020 resulted from the increased precipitation in the region and the amount of surface runoff and groundwater that had to be managed (used) at the mine sites. Consequently, the volume of surface runoff and groundwater used exceeded the volume of Athabasca River water used as make-up water in 2020.

Water-Use Intensity

Water use intensity refers to the amount of water used to produce one BOE. In 2020, oil sands mining used 279 million m3 of nonsaline water (32 per cent of all nonsaline water allocated for oil sands mining) to produce 604 million BOE. For each BOE produced, oil sands mining used 2.9 barrels of nonsaline water (see the following figure).

After increasing from 2015 to 2018, nonsaline water use intensity declined in 2019 and increased again in 2020. The increase occurred because of the large amount of surface runoff and groundwater used. In addition, bitumen production decreased from 2019 to 2020, which also affects nonsaline water use intensity. The water use intensity in 2020 was 19 per cent higher than in 2016.

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 they report the volume of water withdrawn to the Government of Alberta's water use reporting system.

In the following figures, total make-up water refers to the sum of water withdrawn from the lower Athabasca River and gathered from groundwater and surface runoff. On average, between 2016 and 2020, 76 per cent (126 million m3) of water used was recycled by individual companies. During the same period, an annual average of 39 million m3 of nonsaline make-up water was used by individual companies. This difference suggests that companies are using more recycled water than water from the lower Athabasca River for make-up water. The following figures 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 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, and 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 2016 and 2020 was 97 million m3 (which occurred in 2020), whereas the average per operator was 38 million m3. Total make-up water usage among individual operators ranged from 14 to 97 million m3 in 2020.

New projects starting up 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 and reusing it. Thus, water from tailings ponds and storage ponds is recycled and reused in the bitumen production process. Oil sands operators have found that using recycled water increases the bitumen yield in the separation process compared with using water directly from the river, largely because of the residual surfactants found in recycled process water.

From 2016 to 2020, water recycling volumes varied between 45 and 274 million m3 and averaged 126 million m3 per operator. Since 2016, the amount of recycled water used by CNRL, Imperial, Syncrude, and CNUL has generally increased. Suncor's recycled water use varied from 2016 to 2020. Syncrude used the most recycled water, averaging about 252 million m3 between 2016 and 2020, and the company also used the most make-up water in each of these years.

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. From 2016 and 2020, the average volume of water withdrawn from the Athabasca River per operator was 20 million m3, and the average volume of groundwater and surface runoff was 26 million m3. The higher volume of groundwater and surface runoff was due to the higher than normal precipitation in the Athabasca oil sands region in 2020. From 2016 to 2020, the maximum volume of water withdrawn from the Athabasca River was 40 million m3 per operator, and for groundwater and surface runoff, a maximum of 59 million m3.

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 that increase with recycling. Additionally, 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 BOE regardless of the size of the operation.

From 2016 to 2020, water use intensity varied from 1.3 to 4.6 BOE. Only intensities for fully operational facilities are included; therefore, the intensity for Suncor Fort Hills in 2017 was excluded because the mine was still in its start-up phase and only produced a small volume of bitumen in December 2017. From 2016 to 2020, Syncrude had the highest water use intensity, and Suncor had the lowest intensity from 2016 to 2019. In 2020, Fort Hills had the lowest water use intensity.

The bitumen production data were submitted by industry to Petrinex and reported by the AER in ST39: Alberta Mineable Oil Sands Plant Statistics Monthly Supplement.

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 following figures show that the lower Athabasca River's flow was much higher than the framework limits throughout 2020. In 2020, 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 to meet the identified human and ecosystem needs. The AER is responsible for implementing these weekly operational triggers and limits on oil sands mine water withdrawals and the associated annual agreement between companies 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, like other Alberta flow-based conditions in Water Act licences. The official verified data from the WSC are not currently available. The 2020 information in this report might change 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, Alberta Environment and Parks 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.