Water Management 101: Using water wisely

water treatment oil sands

Q: How is water used in the oil sands?
Water is used for a variety of purposes in the oil sands, including for drilling, utility boilers and in camps and offices; however the majority is used to extract bitumen. Surface mining operations use warm water to separate the bitumen from sand and clay materials. In situ (in place) facilities generate steam that is forced below ground to heat the bitumen so that it can be pumped to the surface.

Q: How much fresh water is needed to produce a barrel of oil?
In mining operations, it now takes about 1.7  barrels of water to produce one barrel of bitumen – a 22 per cent reduction since 2012. In situ operations require about 0.2 barrels of water to produce one barrel of bitumen; a 44 per cent reduction since 2012. These numbers are going down because oil sands producers are managing and monitoring their water use carefully and are always innovating to improve.

Q: What happens to the water afterwards?
The majority of the water used in oil sands facilities is stored and reused over and over. Up to 85 per cent of water is recycled in mining operations and up to 90 per cent in in situ operations.

Q: Where does the remaining water come from?
Most mining operations get the majority of their ‘make up’ water from the Athabasca River and its tributaries, as well as from groundwater and surface runoff. In situ facilities do not source any water from the Athabasca River. Instead, they source most of their make up water from underground brackish or saline water zones, or aquifers, although some operators still use some fresh groundwater and surface water.

Q: Who regulates how much fresh water is used in the oil sands?
The Alberta government regulates and monitors freshwater use in the province. Less than 12 per cent is allocated to develop energy resources (including the oil sands industry) and industry used only 27 percent of their allocation. The remaining 88 percent of fresh water is allocated to other users. Agriculture receives the largest allocation of 43 per cent.

Q: How much fresh water does industry actually use?
Mining uses 0.18 per cent of all fresh water available in Alberta each year. To put this number in perspective, one COSIA mining member produces 15 per cent of Canada’s oil each year using the equivalent of 16 to 20 hours worth of average Athabasca River flow. In contrast, in situ operations use very little fresh water as they rely heavily on alternate water sources.

Q: What is industry doing to manage water wisely?
Responsible water management is a priority for COSIA members and the oil sands industry, which are working to improve the use and management of all water resources. COSIA members are focusing on:
•    Accelerating the development and application of water treatment technologies for both mining and in situ operations.
•    Improving steam generation technology in in situ operations to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced per barrel of oil, reduce water use and wastewater production, and lower operational costs.
•    Closing knowledge gaps related to the safe, protective release of treated mine water to the Athabasca River watershed. (No untreated water is released into the Athabasca River.)

Interested in finding our more about water management in the oil sands? Take a look at some of the research projects underway. 

Want to do a deeper dive? See COSIA’s Water Research Report for mining and in situ.

Innovators! Do you want to make a difference in water treatment and management? Check out the Water Innovation Opportunity: Using water wisely: Better treatment methods for organics in water

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