​Alberta oil and gas producers cutting water use while upping production

Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

Alberta’s energy industry is getting more production using less potable water.

Last year industry used the same amount of non-saline water as in 2013 despite a 44 per cent increase in production, according to new report from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) designed to drive improved performance from the industry.

Alberta Energy Industry Water Use provides data on water used in a number of production methods for oil and gas, from hydraulic fracturing and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) to mineable and in situ oilsands.

“Albertans depend on us to make sure the energy industry is using water in a responsible manner,” says Jim Ellis, president and chief executive officer of the AER. “This report provides Albertans with a better understanding of how water is being used to produce oil, gas and bitumen.”

Energy development forms a small part of all non-saline water allocated in the province, accounting for approximately 10 per cent. The remaining 90 per cent is allocated to other users, such as agriculture, forestry, commercial (e.g., golf courses, gravel pit operations) and municipal. But of that 10 per cent allocated to energy, only roughly 22 per cent was used, meaning that only 2.2 per cent of all non-saline water allocated in the province was used for energy development last year.

In addition to non-saline water, companies may also use alternative water sources, such as saline groundwater, produced water, waste water or recycled hydraulic fracturing water. While they do not have to apply to the AER to use saline water, companies are required to report how much they’ve used.

The report shows oilsands mining continues to be the largest user of non-saline water. Over the past five years, an average of 2.7 barrels of water was needed to produce one boe compared with hydraulic fracturing, EOR and in situ, which averaged less than 0.5 barrels of water per boe.

The report also highlights industry efforts to recycle water resources. In 2016, EOR and in situ oilsands developments recycled roughly 90 per cent of all water used as both technologies operate on a cycle where water and steam are continuously injected into the same wells. Hydraulic fracturing recycled about six per cent of all water used due to the limitations of storing or transporting hydraulic fracturing fluids.

The Athabasca River is used as the primary non-saline water source by companies for makeup water to process oilsands. In 2016, oilsands mining used 186 million cubic metres of non-saline water (26 per cent of all non-saline water allocated for oilsands mining) to produce 467 million boe.

According to AER data, in 2016 oilsands mining used 2.51 barrels of non-saline water to produce one boe. Since 2012, oilsands mining has improved its non-saline water use intensity performance by 12 per cent due to improvements in technology and processes across the sector.

Although oilsands mining recycles water using tailings ponds, data is unavailable because companies are not required to report this information to the AER.

In 2016, in situ oilsands projects used 16 million cubic metres of non-saline water (21 per cent of all water allocated for in situ oilsands projects) to produce 476 million boe.

Since 2012, the amount of non-saline water used for in situ development has declined by two per cent as companies have gradually improved the amount of water they have been able to recycle during production. For example, in 2016 companies recycled 86 per cent of all water used, representing a nine per cent increase since 2012, reducing the amount of non-saline water required.

In 2016, in situ oilsands projects used 0.21 barrels of non-saline water to produce one boe. Overall, in situ development has shown a 37 per cent improvement in its non-saline water use intensity since 2012.

While oilsands mining uses the most non-saline water overall, EOR uses the most non-saline water among non-mining technologies. In 2016, EOR used 14 million cubic metres of non-saline water (14 per cent of all water allocated for EOR) to produce 183 million boe.

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A five-year trend shows that EOR’s non-saline water use has decreased by 25 per cent as production from EOR decreased by 16 per cent due mainly to reduced EOR activity across the province.

In 2016, EOR used 0.49 barrels of non-saline water to produce one boe. Overall, EOR has shown a 15 per cent improvement in its non-saline water use intensity from 2012 to 2016.

Hydraulic fracturing uses the least amount of non-saline water among extraction technologies. In 2016, hydraulic fracturing companies used seven million cubic metres of non-saline water (11 per cent of all water allocated for hydraulic fracturing) to produce over 355 million boe. The amount of water used for hydraulic fracturing in Alberta varies each year, depending on economic conditions and the number of wells that are drilled and fractured.

In 2016, hydraulic fracturing used 0.38 barrels of non-saline water to produce one boe. Overall, hydraulic fracturing has shown a 35 per cent increase in its non-saline water use intensity since 2013. Since hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells is a relatively new use of the technology, water use intensity is expected to vary as operators test different strategies and methods to optimize hydrocarbon production.

In 2014, the AER assumed responsibilities under the Water Act from Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP), and the regulator works with the department to make sure Alberta’s oil and gas industry meets all policies and requirements for water use. All other decisions for water use in the province for other purposes, including municipalities, agriculture and forestry, are made by AEP.

When companies apply to use water, they must state the maximum amount of water they need for the entire life cycle of their project. Companies estimate their maximum water use based on their project’s needs and a general understanding of the geology in the area. The AER’s team of specialists—including hydrologists, hydrogeologists, limnologists, and fish and wildlife biologists—reviews applications for water use and consider many factors before making a decision. For example, the amount of water available, water management frameworks under land-use framework regional plans, and the impact withdrawing water could have on fish, the aquatic habitat, wildlife and other water users.

AER inspectors across the province regularly inspect energy facilities and their operations to ensure companies are not taking more water than they are allocated.

When the weather is dry and water flow is low, AEP may place restrictions on water use and the AER applies these restrictions to energy companies. If a restriction is placed on a water source, the AER will suspend existing water licences and temporary diversion licences (TDLs) if necessary and won’t approve any new TDL applications for that water source.

During suspension, a company is not allowed to withdraw water under that licence until they are told they can do so. When restrictions are in place, the AER and AEP closely monitor water flow and will not lift restrictions until flows return to acceptable levels.