​Oilsands producers growing production without increasing use of new water: AER

Steam generators at one of Alberta's in situ oilsands projects. Image: Joey Podlubny/JWN

New data from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) shows that while oilsands production is increasing, the industry’s introduction of new water into its processes is not – indicating that the industry has found ways to get more from less.

The key driver has been increased water recycling, according to the AER, which launched more detailed water use reporting in 2017 in order to enhance transparency and encourage improved performance.

In 2012, in situ oilsands operators used about 30 million cubic meters of new or “make-up” water (both saline and non-saline) to produce about 307 million cubic meters of oil equivalent. In 2016, while oil production increased approximately 55 percent to 476 million cubic meters, make-up water use stayed essentially flat at 31 million cubic meters.

Overall in situ water use increased over the period to about 217 million cubic meters, which the AER says was almost entirely enabled by increased recycling (79 percent in 2012 to 86 percent in 2016).

Make-up water requirements have remained steady for in situ projects in part due to new rules introduced in 2012, the regulator notes.

A similar trend is seen on the oilsands mining side, with the total volume of recycled water increasing by 33 percent from 2012 to 2016, the AER says. At the same time, mined oilsands production increased to 466 million cubic meters from 378 million cubic meters.

Total mined oilsands water use increased to 813 million cubic meters from 648 million cubic meters, with make-up water – primarily non-saline water from the Athabasca River – increasing by 10 million cubic meters, from 171 million to 181 million cubic meters.

Some of the improvements in non-saline water use intensity can be attributed to improvements in technologies and operational processes which require less water, the AER says, adding that operators also use recycled water from tailings ponds or storage ponds.