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Water allocation to Alberta oil and gas producers up sharply in past 15 years

The amount of water Alberta allocates to its oil and gas industry has grown by more than 70 per cent since 2009, according to provincial data.

The Alberta Flow Estimation Tool for Ungauged Watersheds displays detailed information about current water licences.

Comparison of current allocation data with data from a 2010 Alberta Environment report shows that oil and gas now accounts for nearly 11 per cent of all water allocation, up from 6.2 per cent in 2009.

That increased share of the overall water picture is also reflected by a 72 per cent increase in the volume of water allocated — more than a billion cubic metres in 2024, up from 613 million cubic metres in 2009.

Allocations represent the total licensed volume, or legal maximum of water that can be taken, not the amount that is actually used.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), the oil and gas sector used approximately 21 per cent of its water allocation in 2022, around 261 million cubic metres — 70 per cent of it for oilsands mining.

The fossil fuel industry in Alberta has improved its water use efficiency over the years. It also uses a relatively modest amount compared to other sectors such as municipal water use, and roughly 80 per cent of its water is recycled.

Yet the nature of the industry raises questions — how much of a precious resource should Alberta allocate to producing hydrocarbons, the primary driver of global warming and climate change?

The issue is even more acute during a drought, as one of the effects of climate change is increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events like droughts.

“The more oil we produce, the more greenhouse gas emissions we produce,” said Tricia Stadnyk, an engineering professor and hydrology expert at the University of Calgary.

“None of that is good for the planet. None of that is good for climate change.”

Oilsands a major user

Of the total water allocated to the oil and gas sector, the vast majority, 74 per cent, is taken up by the oilsands.

Nine per cent is allocated to injection techniques used for secondary or tertiary oil recovery, and eight per cent is allocated to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

According to the AER, from 2013 to 2022, nonsaline water use intensity — which measures the amount of water used per barrel of oil equivalent produced — increased by 260 per cent for hydraulic fracturing.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) says oil and gas production uses water in a variety of ways, from separating bitumen from sand and clay, to flushing out oil from older conventional wells, or for spraying unpaved roads to keep dust down.

The AER’s most recent annual Water Use Performance report doesn’t explore the role that fossil fuel production and combustion play in climate change. The report does highlight the efficiency of the oil and gas sector when it comes to water use.

It notes that nonsaline water use intensity for oilsands mining decreased 30 per cent from 2013 to 2022. However, overall freshwater use increased by 17 per cent during that period, while hydrocarbon production increased by 66 per cent.

In other words, the amount of water used to produce each barrel of oil fell by about one-third, but overall more water was used and more oil produced.

Over that same decade, the average number of barrels of freshwater needed to produce one barrel of oil equivalent from the oilsands was 2.47.

Phillip Meintzer, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, lays out the ways that oilsands production in particular has harmful effects on water well beyond the sector’s water usage.

Those range from the loss of wetlands — which are not only crucial ecosystems but also filter water and serve as buffers for wildfires — to contamination of water systems, which is exacerbated by reduced water levels due to industry consumption.

“So it’s not so much just the fact that oil and gas is using water,” said Meintzer, “[but] it has all of these side impacts to watersheds and the ecosystems and human communities that rely on them.”

Of all water allocated from Alberta’s Athabasca River basin, 92 per cent goes to oil and gas — comparable to the way irrigation dominates allocations from the Bow River basin.

‘Very well monitored’

Stadnyk said that while the oilsands contributes to climate change — both in the production of oil and in the eventual combustion of the end product — the sector’s water use is not unreasonable compared to other sectors.

“The oil and gas sector is very well monitored in terms of their consumptive use,” she said.

“They actually have to report that dynamically. Not all sectors have to do that. And in fact the agriculture sector in southern Alberta uses a much larger percentage than the oil and gas industry.

“But the reporting in terms of how much is actually used is not quite keeping pace with the oil and gas industry.”

Stadnyk also notes that there’s a “very strong push” for Alberta’s fossil fuel industry to use recycled water — only about 20 per cent of its water use is nonsaline water.

Meintzer, however, has questions about the reliability of information coming out of the industry.

“That’s relying on self-reported data and there are instances where we do see that self-reported data is misreported or underreported in other cases, like we recently saw with emissions reporting out of the oilsands, which was drastically underreported,” he said.

“Rather than focusing too much on allocation, I think we need more transparency around how water is used.”

In an emailed statement, Ryan Fournier, press secretary for Alberta Environment and Protected Areas, noted that the vast majority of water used by oil and gas is in northern regions “where water supply far exceeds allocated use for all purposes.

“In the areas hit hardest by drought, the oil and gas sector uses a tiny amount of water,” he wrote.

Fournier said it’s common for actual water use to be less than the allocated amount.

“Licensees tend to apply for allocations based on reasonable estimates of their maximum requirements,” he said, pointing out that the industry has increased its water efficiency in recent years.

Fournier did not respond to questions about whether there were any current or planned restrictions on industry water usage due to the drought.

In a statement, Richard Wong, vice-president of regulatory and operations at CAPP, highlighted the oil and gas sector’s water-use efficiency and recycling, as well as its modest allocation relative to other sectors.

In response to a question about whether there was a conflict in increasing water allocation to an industry that significantly contributes to climate change — and thus more frequent and severe droughts, among other effects — Wong pointed to the economic benefits of oil and gas.

“Alberta’s oil and natural gas sector produces critical energy supplies for Canadians and our exports generate billions of dollars in GDP and economic benefits across the country,” he said in the statement. “The sector is always striving to improve environmental performance.”

Meintzer said just because there’s water doesn’t mean it’s all available for use.

“We have to look at the the context in a given watershed to see what an ecosystem needs,” he said, such as in-stream flows, which are not always well understood.

“That’s the [amount of] water that needs to stay in streams to actually support the the ecosystems like riparian zones that border the rivers, all of the aquatic species in life that live inside the rivers.”

To Stadnyk, oil and gas is among the more responsible industrial users of water — but that doesn’t change the fact that continued production of hydrocarbons only further contributes to more frequent and severe droughts, among other effects of climate change.

Part of the problem, she said, is political resistance to a shift away from oil and gas production and toward green energy. But Albertans also contribute to the problem in terms of demand.

“There are other cold nations in the Northern Hemisphere that have similar or worse climates than us that use far less energy than we do,” said Stadnyk.

“We’re a very energy-intensive country, just like we’re a water-intensive country.”

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