The Role of Water in the Oil Sands

Water has a central role in the bitumen extraction process. Oil sands are made of a mixture of bitumen, sand, silt, clay and water. Unlike conventional sources of oil, bitumen is too thick to be extracted without first being modified in some way.

In mining operations, warm water is mixed with the mined oil sands ore to separate the bitumen from the remaining clays, sands and other materials. In in situ operations the most common recovery method uses water to create steam which is injected into the oil sands reservoir through wells. The steam heats the bitumen, causing it to separate from the sand and clay so it can be pumped to the surface.


Alberta’s water allocation in 2012 by sector:

In 2012 COSIA members took an average 0.4 barrels of fresh water to produce one barrel of bitumen from in situ operations (almost all fresh water for in situ operations is drawn from aquifers rather than from rivers or lakes).

In 2012 the oil sands mining industry’s share of Alberta’s water allocation was eight per cent [1]. Actual water use was less than a third of the allocated amount.



Barrels of water needed to create one: [2]

NOTE: these figures are based on life-cycle water analysis including direct and indirect uses (i.e. water used in the production of food crops, electronics, paper products, electricity, transportation fuels, and more). This methodology is different to that used for calculating oil sands water use referenced here.


[1] The Facts on Oil Sands, Environment: Water
[2] National Geographic’s Change the Course Campaign