Corporate Responsibility


Water is an important resource to the world and our operations and, as a result, protecting and using it responsibly is critical. We integrate risk management strategies throughout all our operations to balance our operational needs for water with the need to maintain the quality and quantity of this resource.

Source water for oil and natural gas operations in Western Canada typically involves a combination of recycled produced water, saline and non-saline (fresh) water. Saline water is defined in Alberta as having greater than 4,000 mg/L total dissolved solids (TDS) and is not suitable for drinking or agricultural use without treatment. Fresh water has less than 4,000 mg/L total TDS concentration.

Fresh water resources are effectively managed by provincial regulators to ensure there are no significant regional effects on water. Canadian crude oil and natural gas are produced under some of the highest standards in the world, including strict water use regulations for fresh water withdrawals, waste water disposal and hydraulic fracturing.

Water that is returned to the environment is tested to ensure that the required water quality objectives are met prior to release, complying with all provincial and federal regulations pertaining to the discharge of water and surface water runoff. These regulations are designed to protect receiving waters.

Canadian Natural’s water management strategies focus on managing water use effectively and efficiently, while protecting water sources. They include:

  • reducing fresh water use by maximizing produced water recycling and saline water use (saline water refers to non-potable water, not suitable for drinking or agricultural use without treatment);
  • applying technology and increasing efficiencies to conserve fresh water use; and
  • avoiding effects to water sources by following industry-leading operating practices and regulations, and minimizing water use, fresh water withdrawals and produced water disposal where possible.

While specific projects vary in their water management strategies to account for reservoir and technology requirements, all strategies are consistently applied across the Company and provide the foundation for our work. Our water management programs also involve monitoring of water sources, storage and reporting. We review, track and report our performance on a regular basis to senior management, who in turn report on environmental matters quarterly to the Health, Safety, Asset Integrity and Environment Committee of the Board of Directors. To read about our performance data, please see our latest 2020 sustainability report.

Reducing fresh water use

We maintain fresh water use below our annual regulatory allocation limits across our operations. To reduce fresh water use, we leverage technology to maintain high recycle rates of produced water and use saline water for steam generation. For example, at our larger thermal in situ oil sands operations, where water is required for steam generation to soften and recover bitumen, we continue to invest in water treatment, enhanced steam generation and further development of alternative sources, such as saline and produced water.

At our oil sands mining and upgrading operations, we recycle most of the produced water through the advancement of tailings management technologies, limiting fresh water withdrawals from the Athabasca River well below our annual allocation. On-site water storage ponds hold enough water to maintain production in the event of water withdrawal restrictions during the river's low flow periods.

Being a leading R&D investor in the oil and natural gas sector, we invest in a variety of research projects and continually evaluate new technologies to increase efficiencies. Water quality is a central focus in our thermal in situ oil sands operations to maintain high recycle rates. For example, produced water is treated for re-use as boiler feed for steam generation. Click here to learn more.

Protecting water quality

Water that is returned to the environment is tested to ensure that the required water quality objectives are met prior to release, complying with all provincial and federal regulations pertaining to the discharge of water and surface water runoff. Water released includes clean surface water pumped from pads, water treated as part of groundwater remediation systems and surface water runoff.

Through a water management sharing agreement with other oil sands operators, cumulative water withdrawals are managed to ensure the ecology of the Athabasca River is protected.

Across our operations regulations and industry operating practices are also followed for the safe operation of disposal wells, which are drilled and operated to contain fluids in the target formations, isolating materials from the environment.

Our International operations operate under the same management strategies as our North American operations, meeting stringent operating standards and local regulatory requirements to ensure asset integrity and marine environment protection. Our offshore operating practices limit environmental impact through the use of water-based, drilling muds whenever possible and the reduction of produced water volumes.

On offshore installations, produced water is separated from hydrocarbons in gravity separators and treated to remove oil before it is discharged to sea. All our offshore UK installations operate within our internal stretch targets of 20 mg/l for oil discharge to the sea, and produced water quality remains well within the regulatory compliance limit of 30 mg/l. In Africa, each installation operates below its ambitious produced water limit as defined in the Environmental Impact Assessments for each field.

Hydraulic fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing is a proven technology used for over 65 years safely in Western Canada under strong regulations and industry developed and accepted practices. As part of our commitment to protecting people, the environment (including water resources) and assets, Canadian Natural follows regulatory requirements for subsurface integrity, ensuring wellbore pressure integrity at all times.

We also participate in and follow Industry Recommended Practices (IRP) that complement regulations and are designed to improve water management, wellbore construction and reporting requirements including water and fluids for all hydraulic fracturing projects in Western Canada. Through these practices, we adopt a risk-based approach to developing, reviewing and assessing controls during hydraulic fracturing operations, including careful planning, monitoring and measures that minimize risks. Industry’s best practices also include public disclosure through regulatory reporting of water use and additives (and their concentration) used hydraulic fracturing fluids on the FracFocus website. Working with industry, we continue to develop, implement and improve practices to reduce water volumes (for example through recycling or alternative water sources) and to minimize chemicals use.

To learn more about hydraulic fracturing regulations, monitoring and public safety read this fact sheet and watch this video.

Stakeholder engagement

We work with regulators, government, industry peers and multi-stakeholder groups to advance environmental management frameworks, improve operating practices and engage with public policy makers through the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). We participate in a number of committees pertaining to water including: the Beaver River Watershed Alliance, the Milk River Watershed Committee, the Lower Souris River Watershed Committee, the North Athabasca Oil Sands Groundwater Management Framework and the South Athabasca Oil Sands Groundwater Management Framework.

Through the Oil Sands Monitoring Program we coordinate the regional monitoring data with the federal and provincial governments to provide transparent data to the public. We communicate to the public the measures we take to conserve and protect fresh water resources through presentations, open houses, our annual sustainability report and reports to regulators.

Industry working together to reduce fresh water use

As an industry, we are collaborating with academic institutions to accelerate water treatment methods and continue to improve industry’s environmental performance. Canadian Natural is a joint industry partner in the Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC) that allows industry partners to advance new water treatment and recycling technologies for in situ oil sands development, and for researchers to test new technologies on ‘live’ process fluids in real world conditions. The $140-million dedicated test facility is a joint industry project being developed through Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).

More information on this project is available in our Technology and Innovation Case Studies.

To improve water tracking and reporting systems, an Alberta Water Tool was developed with the support of the Alberta Upstream Petroleum Research Fund, PTAC, CAPP, the National Research Council Industrial Research Assistance Program and Tecterra. This online resource integrates multiple data sources and provides access to accurate, real-time information about water resources in west-central Alberta, following the approach successfully employed in the development of the B.C. Northeast Water Tool (NEWT).

The Water Technology Development Centre.

Water allocation

Water is an important resource, and protecting and using it responsibly is an industry-wide priority. Industry is effectively managing water and improving performance. In Canada, water allocation is largely managed by each province and territory.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) Alberta Energy Industry Water Use Report released in 2019, nearly 7% of all the water available was allocated for use in 2018, of which only 12% was allocated to develop energy resources in Alberta (representing less than one per cent of all water available in the province). The remainder was allocated to other users in the province, such as agriculture, forestry and municipalities.

Water Stressed Areas

An area is experiencing water stress when annual water supplies are less than 1,700 m3 per person. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI) National Water Stress Ranking classification, the majority of Canadian Natural operations are in areas of low baseline water stress. Most of our operations are located in northern Alberta, where more than 80% of the province’s water is located. Some of Canadian Naturals operations fall within portions of Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan which are considered water short areas under Alberta’s Water Conservation and Allocation Policy (2006) and Saskatchewan Water Corporation Act. However, Canadian Natural’s water use in these areas is negligible. Canadian Natural has comprehensive water management strategies and our water withdrawals are well below our license limits to reduce impacts on water availability.