We're always looking for ways to reduce the amount of water we use and be more efficient with how we use it. We consider many options, including developing new technologies and processes to handle water, finding ways to recycle and reuse more water and identifying ways to replace fresh water with more saline water for use in our operations.

The Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia governments closely monitor and regulate water usage. We apply for licences and are required to demonstrate how much water we will consume to avoid adversely affecting or disturbing the ecosystems in the area. We continue to monitor the water flow throughout the entire life of the project to successfully meet these requirements.

The table below provides an overview of our goal related to water and provides recent examples of how we’re working towards the goal. Learn more in this section about how we’re managing our water use responsibly.

Our goal Our recent performance examples

To manage our use of water resources efficiently and responsibly.

In 2016, our fresh water use intensity for oil sands production was 0.11 barrels of fresh water per barrel of oil produced. That’s well below the industry average for in-situ oil sands operators and the target set by COSIA members to reduce oil sands water use to a target of 0.20 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil produced

How water is used in our operations

Water is essential to our business. Whether it’s for water flood techniques used to improve production from mature conventional oil fields or steam needed for oil sands production, most of our operations require water. The success of our operations depends on our ability to access and use water efficiently.

We require water to create steam at our SAGD operations. When steam is injected into the ground to heat the oil during SAGD, it condenses. Eventually water from the condensed steam as well as water that already exists naturally in the formation is brought to the surface with the oil. This water, called produced water, is separated from the oil and recycled to make more steam. The vast majority of the water we use on a daily basis is produced water, which we reuse over and over again to make steam during the SAGD process. When we aren’t able to use produced water, we use saline (salty) water whenever possible. Only a small portion of the water we use to make the steam is fresh water, and that comes from aquifers.

We receive regulatory approval to draw fresh water from surface and underground sources for use at our camps, for road maintenance, and for drilling and construction across all of our operations. We also use fresh water to build ice roads.

We work towards our goal of managing water resources efficiently and responsibly through:


  • We monitor our water use and our potential impact on water quality by having teams from across the company – in areas such as environment, regulatory, geochemistry, well integrity and engineering – collaborate to evaluate our water use and the availability of saline water and fresh water. Together with our industry partners, we also provide funding to third-party monitoring agencies
  • We use a mobile app to improve the way we track fresh water usage. Moving from paper forms to a centralized system improves reporting quality, reduces time and costs associated with data entry and results in improved data accessibility
    • after conducting a successful pilot for the mobile app in 2015, we started using the app at our Christina Lake and Telephone Lake operations to track our fresh water usage in 2016. We expect to have all our oil sands teams using the app by the end of 2017
  • We work with neighbouring and regional users of water sources to understand long-term availability and to monitor groundwater and surface water around our operations
  • Together with our industry partners, we provide funding to Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM). Part of JOSM’s mandate is to help monitor ground water quality and availability to understand how oil sands operations impact groundwater sources. Monitoring and understanding our water use is one of the first steps to ensuring we have the information we need to minimize the effects our operations have on the water sources

Recycling and reusing

  • We aim to recycle as much water for steam generation as possible. We do this by using innovations such as our patented blowdown boiler technology, which has the potential to reduce our demand for additional water by up to 50 percent
  • We reuse camp waste water. After it has been treated and approved for release, we use it to build ice roads, for dust suppression and for our drilling activities
  • In late 2016, we added additional water treatment facilities to our Foster Creek and Christina Lake operations. By treating water that’s used in our operations, we’re able to reuse it, which reduces the amount we need to draw from fresh water sources


  • We continue to develop and invest in technologies that can reduce our water use per barrel of oil produced. Technologies to improve our water use include:

Read more about these and other technologies in the Innovation section of the report »

11 Patented technology


  • We evaluate our water use performance relative to that of our peers and other industries to continuously improve. We’re collaborating on best management practices through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) to share our learnings and learn from others
  • We’re a part of the Christina Lake Regional Water Management Agreement, where we work together with other operators in the Christina Lake area to develop a collective approach to water demand. This helps us see the big picture for current and future groundwater demand in the Christina Lake area and plan our water sourcing and waste water disposal strategies together to minimize our impact on the environment
  • Cenovus actively engages with local communities and First Nations groups regarding our water use plans through the regulatory process and through participation on various local and regional organizations
  • We participated in CDP’s Water Disclosure in 2016, a voluntary program that allows companies to share information about water management and governance, water-related risks, opportunities and water accounting

Fresh water use – company wide

Fresh water use - company wide

Fresh water intensity – company wide

Fresh water intensity - company wide

While our overall fresh water use and intensity remained about the same in 2016, our fresh water use and intensity for production activities increased from previous years. This increase was due to a greater need for fresh water at our oil sands operations due to the start-up of new phases at Foster Creek and Christina Lake. The increase was partially offset by a decrease in fresh water use at our conventional Pelican Lake enhanced oil recovery operations because of reduced polymer flooding activity.

Fresh water use – oil sands

Fresh water use - oil sands

Fresh water intensity – oil sands

Fresh water intensity - oil sands

We use steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology at our oil sands projects, which relies on steam to get the oil out of the ground. The success of our operations depends on our ability to access and use water efficiently. The water that was used for steam production at our Foster Creek and Christina Lake oil sands projects in 2016 came from the following sources:

  • Over 84 percent from recycled produced water
  • About 12 percent from saline (salty) groundwater
  • About 4 percent from fresh groundwater

We do not use water from rivers, lakes or streams to make steam in our oil sands operations.

We used more fresh water at our oil sands operations in 2016 partly because of the need for additional steam during the start-up of new production phases at our Christina Lake operations. This occurred during a period when less produced water was available and less saline water could be used. Produced water is the water returned with the oil from our wells that we recycle to use for steam generation, while saline water comes from underground aquifers.

Foster Creek fresh and saline water use intensity for production

Our Foster Creek operation has made great strides over the last decade, decreasing fresh water consumption by 90 percent since 2006. We achieved this by recycling more water and using saline water instead of fresh groundwater. In 2006, we used about a barrel of fresh water to produce a barrel of oil. Today it takes us less than 0.08 of a barrel of fresh water to produce a barrel of oil.