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The use of water is an essential component in many oil and gas operations. The BC Oil and Gas Commission is responsible for reviewing, assessing, and making decisions on water authorizations from both surface and subsurface water sources for oil and gas activity.

We have the expertise and tools to make informed water management decisions. Protecting and maintaining environmental and community water needs are our first priority.

The use of water is an essential component in many oil and gas operations. The BC Oil and Gas Commission is responsible for reviewing, assessing, and making decisions on water authorizations from both surface and subsurface water sources for oil and gas activity.

Why do oil and gas companies use water?

Water is used for various purposes in the oil and gas industry, the largest of these being for hydraulic fracturing. Water is used for other oil and gas activities, including:

  • Seismic or geophysical exploration
  • Drilling
  • Machine washing
  • Dust control
  • Water floods (to enhance oil recovery)
  • Ice road freezing
  • Hydrostatic testing of pipelines

How much water is used?

Each quarter, the Commission produces a summary of water allocation and use for oil and gas activities organized by water management basins. In 2018, oil and gas related short-term water use approvals and water licences accounted for 0.003 per cent of total volume of mean annual runoff in northeast B.C.

How is water accessed?

There are different ways the oil and gas industry may access water in British Columbia. Some methods are managed through provincial legislation, including:

  • Water licenses are issued under the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) for surface and groundwater. The Commission has staff designated as Regional Water Managers with authority for issuing and administering long-term water licenses.
  • Short-term surface water use or diversion approvals are issued under Section 10 of the WSA, for a term not exceeding 24 months. The Commission administers short-term water use.
  • Water source wells are authorized by the Commission under the Oil and Gas Activities Act (OGAA). They also require a water licence. Water source wells are a specific type of well where the water withdrawn is intended for injection into an underground formation to enhance oil or natural gas recovery.
  • Flowback water that returns to the surface after being injected for hydraulic fracturing.
  • Produced water that flows to the surface as a by-product of oil and gas production.

The oil and gas industry can access water by means outside of regulatory oversight. Private agreements can be made with landowners or others who have a source of surface water supply such as a dugout or a groundwater well. An authorization under the WSA is required to access water.

What happens to the water that oil and gas companies use?

This water is then deposited into a disposal well. A disposal well is often a depleted oil or gas well, into which waste fluids can be injected for safe disposal. A by-product of oil and gas production is water that was either trapped in the same deep formations (produced water), was injected to stimulate a formation (hydraulic fracturing), or was injected to enhance oil recovery (flowback water). This water is generally highly saline and not suited for domestic purposes.

Surface discharge of produced water is prohibited in B.C. Water used during hydraulic fracturing is not discharged into surface waters, such as lakes and streams, and is not discharged into near surface aquifers used for drinking water supply.

How is water managed?

Commission experts, who have the tools and expertise to ensure water resources are managed responsibly, monitor water use. Regulating water used for oil and gas activities is the Commission’s responsibility. In recent years, as water use increased, the Commission has put considerable resources into better understanding water availability and water use in northeast B.C. The overall goal is to ensure the water needs of the environment and other users are addressed before allocating water for industry use.

How does the Commission ensure compliance?

When submitting an application for a water licence or short-term use approval, the purposes, quantities and proposed source of water must be clearly outlined. Applicants must prepare a construction plan for their proposed works, including details about the location and size of the works, ancillary sites and other details of the project’s development. All proposed activities must be designed in accordance with the WSA, OGAA and applicable regulations.

As a condition of permitting water licences and short-term water use approvals, the Commission requires mandatory quarterly reporting of water withdrawal data. This enables the Commission to monitor and track water consumption and the associated withdrawal locations.

How do they decide how much water oil and gas companies can use?

The Northeast Water Tool (NEWT) provides guidance on water availability in the northeast, informing water allocation decisions, ensuring environmental flow need requirements, and maintaining sustainable water management. Information on real-time streamflow availability is supplied by the Water Survey of Canada and is available through the Water Portal; this information, along with any streamflow information collected by the company, is also used to guide water allocation decisions. Water Tools, similar to NEWT, are used in other regions of the province to guide oil and gas water decisions.

By collecting water use data and monitoring real-time streamflow data, the Commission is well equipped to make decisions on water use applications, monitor drought conditions, and protect the volume and timing of the water flow required for the proper functioning of aquatic ecosystems.

Where do companies store their water?

Oil and gas companies typically store fresh water in various water storage structures such as dugouts, water reservoirs, tanks, c-rings and other similar structures in preparation for using the water in their activities.

Some of these qualify as dams under the Dam Safety Regulation (DSR) of the Water Sustainability Act (WSA), which took effect on Feb. 29, 2016. Except for minor dams (dams with live storage volumes of <10,000 m3), these dams are subject to Part 2 of the DSR and must be approved under water licences.

Since 2014, Commission staff have had authority to issue water licences for oil and gas purposes and starting in 2016 staff were given authority to approve and inspect dams to ensure they are in compliance and will remain safe to the public and environment.

The Commission employs dam safety officers and engineers who ensure proper oversight of the structures, identifying any instances of non-compliance and issuing enforcement orders as required to correct deficiencies. Follow-up inspections are conducted by the safety officers to confirm compliance, and orders and contravention determinations are posted on the Enforcement & Compliance section of the website.

The map below shows the approximate location of dam structures in northeast B.C. built, operated and maintained by oil and gas permit holders, and regulated by the Commission.

What progress has been made to reduce water usage?

Companies are continually seeking ways to reduce freshwater use including sources such as recycled hydraulic fracturing flowback water and the use of undrinkable water from deep wells. The Commission can suspend industry short term use in times of drought, as took place in northeast B.C. in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019. The Commission also writes conditions into licences that state what flow conditions and months water can be withdrawn.

Water Frequently Asked Questions

Why is water used for hydraulic fracturing?

Water is used for various stages of unconventional gas development. It is used during geophysical exploration, for washing equipment, to freeze winter ice roads, for dust control, for drilling wells, as part of the hydraulic fracturing injection process and for hydrostatic testing of pipelines.

During the hydraulic fracturing stage of unconventional gas development, water is mixed with sand and chemicals and pumped down the wellbore. Fractures are then created in the target formation, allowing natural gas to flow up the wellbore.


How is water allocated for oil and gas activities?

The BC Oil and Gas Commission (Commission) has delegated authority to issue water licences under Section 9 and short-term water use approvals under Section 10 of the Water Sustainability Act. The Commission considers a number of key points when reviewing water use applications, such as runoff levels in rivers, groundwater aquifer productivity, other water users and ecological values. Community and ecological needs must be able to be sustained before a water licence or approval is issued and conditions may be attached to the licence or approval. The Commission is a proactive regulator with the authority to intervene when necessary.


How much water is used?

The Commission tracks all water used for hydraulic fracturing and other oil and gas purposes through regulatory reporting requirements. Water use for oil and gas purposes varies significantly from month to month and year to year depending on a variety of factors including industry growth, well completion and production aspects, seasonal factors, water restrictions, or other factors. In 2018, approximately 3.28 million m3 of surface water and groundwater was used for oil and gas activities. On a per well basis, the volume of water used for hydraulic fracturing ranges from 10,000 to 70,000 m3 depending on the targeted formation and the number of fracture stimulations.

In most river basins, the total approved surface water use is a fraction of the mean annual surface runoff. For the majority of basins, approved water use corresponds to less than 0.2 per cent of mean annual runoff. Further, the amount of actual water used is typically less than the amount that is approved (e.g.,8.6% of approved water was actually used in 2018 due to a variety of factors).


How is groundwater quality protected?

Provincial laws outline how the oil and gas industry must ensure water resources, including groundwater, are protected from contamination throughout the lifecycle of an oil and gas activity (from application through restoration) Regulatory provisions for groundwater protection include:

  1. Prevention requirements (e.g., setbacks and location restrictions, engineering specifications and standards for all wells, pipelines, and facilities, operational requirements, testing and emergency preparedness requirements)
  2. Monitoring requirements (e.g., operational safety and environmental monitoring and reporting)
  3. Mitigation requirements (e.g., emergency response, site remediation and reclamation)

In addition to legislation, special conditions may be prescribed in permits for Oil and Gas activities to address site-specific issues or concerns.

As an example for engineering requirements for oil and gas wells, pressure-tested steel casings are cemented in place to prevent deeper underground fluids (e.g., saline water, oil, gas) and hydraulic fracturing fluids from migrating into freshwater aquifers. At the time of well decommissioning, requirements include isolating porous intervals using cement, and cutting and capping the well below ground prior to site restoration.


What happens to produced water?

Produced water, saline water originating from deep formations which comes to the surface with natural gas and oil production, is injected into approved disposal wells. If this water is produced from an oil pool under waterflood recovery, the water is re-injected back into the same pool.

Produced water includes the flow-back of water-based hydraulic fracture fluid. Currently, about 50 per cent of this produced water is reused in hydraulic fracturing operations. This produced water may be stored temporarily before re-use but is eventually injected into approved disposal service wells, both which are subject to strict regulations.


What is being done to ensure water supplies are conserved?

To ensure river and lake levels are conserved for community water supplies and fish and aquatic resources are not impacted, the Commission can and does issue suspensions of short-term water use by the oil and gas industry during drought conditions. Water licences contain specific conditions to limit withdrawals during periods of low flow. All groundwater licence applications are reviewed for potential hydraulic connection with surface water.

Approximately, 65 per cent of water used for oil and gas activities comes from surface water. The remaining 35 per cent comes from recycled water such as flowback fluids from operations or deep groundwater aquifers located more than 800m below the surface. Some water comes from shallow groundwater aquifers typically shallower than 300 m below ground.

On average, there is an abundance of water in northeast B.C. but it needs to be managed carefully, for example the Commission has halted industry water withdrawals during periods of seasonal low flow and drought in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019. The Commission has also developed NEWT to support decision makers by providing average water availability and water approval data, for streams and lakes.


Where can I find more data or information?

Fact Sheets defining water used in natural gas activities can be found here.

The Commission publishes water use data via its Water Information page here. For each basin, the mean annual runoff are listed. A list of current Section 9 licences and Section 10 approvals is also available in the Water Reports.

The Northeast Water Tool (NEWT) provides information for decision makers on average streamflow conditions and water authorized for use.

The Water Portal provides a range of water-related data and information.

The Groundwater Review Assistant (GWRA) compiles available groundwater data to assist in conducting hydrogeological reviews for groundwater licence applications or to support review for a variety of groundwater protection aspects.

Links to all water tools are available here: https://bcogc.ca/public-zone/water-information.

If you have further questions about water use for oil and gas activities in B.C. or the Commission in general, please email ogc.communications@bcogc.ca.

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