Drop by drop: how much water are companies using?

If you tracked your water use every time you turned the tap—and the results were posted for the world to see—would you change your habits?

The AER is betting that energy companies will, which was one reason we released the Alberta Energy Industry Water Use Report. And the results might surprise some.

Despite being one of Alberta’s biggest industries, oil and gas development accounts for a small part of the province’s water use. In 2016, the energy industry accounted for 10 per cent of all water that was made available for use, but it used only a fifth of that amount.

“While companies are using far less water than what they’re allocated, making this data available to the public encourages companies to measure themselves against their peers and motivates them to use water more efficiently,” says Aruna Bissonauth, the AER’s manager of Industry Performance – Mining.

The AER rolled out the report in two parts. In spring 2017, we showed a provincial water-use summary for hydraulic fracturing, oil sands mining, in situ, and enhanced oil recovery. We then updated the report in February 2018 to show company-specific data for oil sands mining and in situ. Future updates will show company-specific data for hydraulic fracturing and enhanced oil recovery.

About 10 per cent of all water allocated by Alberta Environment and Parks in 2016 was allocated to the energy industry. The rest was allocated to other users such as agriculture and irrigation (44 per cent), commercial and cooling (28 per cent), and municipalities (11 per cent).

Shannon Chmelyk, manager of Industry Performance, noted that energy companies often use less water than the amount they request in their applications.

“Once companies finish planning for a project, they explore the site to gain a better understanding of where the oil, gas, or bitumen is,” said Chmelyk. “As projects become operational, companies can find ways to use less water by improving their operations over time, recycling more, and knowing exactly how much they need to get these resources out of the ground.”

The report is part of the AER’s industry performance program, which measures, evaluates, and reports on energy development activities we regulate. In addition to water, the AER has also reported on industry’s pipeline performance.

A Few Facts About H2O Use in Energy Development

  1. One is not like the other. Measuring water-use performance involves more than examining which company uses the least amount and which company recycles the most. It’s also important to look at how each company operates (i.e., mining or in situ) and at the size and age of their projects, because each factor affects their water use.
  2. Less is more. Over time and through new technologies and innovation, companies have reduced the amount of water they need. For example, in 2016, about 80 per cent of water used for oil sands mining was recycled from tailings ponds, while in situ recycled 86 per cent by separating and treating water from producing wells.
  3. A drop in the bucket. While recycling plays a large role in the industry, companies can also find ways to use less water by improving their operations over time, as noted in our 2017 industry water-use report.

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