Water is an important part of oil sands production. As the oil sands industry grows, so does the demand on Canadian water resources.
Canada’s oil sands industry is a leader in researching and implementing technologies to maximize recycling and using saline groundwater or other non-drinkable water sources as alternatives to fresh water.
Oil sands mining operations in northern Alberta continually recycle over 80-95 per cent of the water they use. Water optimization efforts have allowed increased bitumen recovery over the last two decades without proportional increases in fresh water use - and this trend is expected to continue in the future.
In mining operations, warm water is used to separate the bitumen from the sand and clay. For in situ drilling operations, water is used to generate steam to heat the reservoir to enable bitumen to flow to production wells. Upgraders also use steam to heat the bitumen and the oil products for processing and to generate electricity. In addition, water is used in the drilling and completion of in situ wells and in worksite camps for all oil sands operations. On average, in situ operations require 0.4 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced. Mining requires, on average, 3.1 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced. Source: CAPP 2013.
Where does the water come from?
Water is taken from either fresh (surface water, non-saline groundwater) or non-fresh (brackish, saline groundwater, reclaimed municipal wastewater) sources. Mining projects rely on fresh water because the salinity in non-fresh sources interferes with the separation process and hinders reclamation in tailings ponds. Water withdrawals are high when new mining projects get started, but mines become more efficient over time.
In some in situ projects, fresh water is entirely replaced with non-fresh water. Devon Canada Corporation's Jackfish project is one oil sands project that uses only brackish water to create the steam needed to separate oil from sand.The Athabasca River basin
As the primary source of fresh water for the oil sands, the Athabasca River basin plays an important role in Alberta’s industry and ecological landscape. The Athabasca River originates in the Rocky Mountains and flows northeast through the province, past the urban centres of Jasper, Hinton, Whitecourt, Athabasca and Fort McMurray prior to emptying into Lake Athabasca. Flows from the basin eventually make their way to the Arctic Ocean.The Athabasca River is one of the most intensely monitored bodies of water in the world, with ongoing analysis to ensure that water quality and flow rates are not compromised by industrial operations. Even with forecast oil sands growth, the Athabasca, Peace and Beaver River basins (where oil sands development occurs) remain among the least utilized river basins in Alberta.
Managing water use
Canada’s oil sands industry is a leader in researching and implementing technologies to maximize recycling and using saline groundwater or other non-fresh water sources as alternatives to fresh water. Water optimization efforts have allowed increased bitumen recovery over the last two decades without proportional increases in fresh water use, and this trend is expected to continue in the future.To further decrease fresh water consumption, producers use brackish or saline groundwater (groundwater from a deep aquifer that is not suitable for drinking or agriculture) as an alternative to fresh water. In some in situ projects, fresh water is entirely replaced with non-fresh water. Devon Canada Corporation's Jackfish project is one oil sands project that uses only brackish water to create the steam needed to separate oil from sand.
Water treatment normally results in a small stream of wastewater that is either injected into approved deep disposal zones or transported to an approved waste handling facility. The Suncor MacKay River project has implemented changes to its water processing facilities to further reduce the amount of wastewater generated and is demonstrating a fully functional Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) system in the oil sands industry. ZLD has a number of benefits, such as recycling more than 98 per cent of a facility’s water requirement.
The Alberta Energy Regulator oversees the industry’s use of water. All water users must apply to divert fresh water from its original source. The amount of water allocated is based on sustaining Alberta’s groundwater and surface water.
Each sector applies for water licenses and the government allocates water based on these applications. In 2014, the oil sands industry represented about eight per cent of total provincial water allocations. But not all of that water was actually used. The oil sands industry uses less than 1/3 of its total water allocation per year.