Water is essential to Suncor's operations—in particular, our oil sands business. As a responsible energy developer, we are committed to using this precious resource wisely. Suncor's focus is on reducing our reliance on fresh water, recycling wherever possible and ensuring the quality of all discharged water meets the highest regulatory standards.
Water impacts every aspect of Suncor's business. At our oil sands operations, water is primarily used in three ways: in the bitumen extraction process, as cooling and process water during upgrading, and to generate steam at our in situ operations. Suncor's refineries in Ontario and Colorado also require significant volumes of water for heating and cooling. But the biggest fresh water demand comes from our oil sands facilities—which means this is also where the opportunity exists to make the biggest savings through improved performance. Along with other oil sands operators, Suncor draws water from the Athabasca River, one of Alberta's largest river basins. Suncor is licenced to withdraw approximately 66.2 million cubic metres of water annually from the Athabasca. We have continued to operate well below our water licence even as production levels increased.
Under normal conditions, about 75 percent of the water Suncor uses at its oil sands mining operations is recycled. The recycling ratio at our in situ facility is even higher—at or above 90 percent. Suncor's in situ technology includes a closed loop water recycling system for steam generation that eliminates the need for fresh surface water or ground water. Make-up water is drawn from wastewater from our oil sands operations.
A significant amount of the water used in Suncor's mining operations is contained within tailings—the mixture of fine clay, sands, water and residual bitumen produced through the extraction process. As we reclaim those tailings, we are able to recycle the water that's released in our tailings operations.
Suncor recognizes water quality is a critical issue for our downstream stakeholders, many of whom rely on the Athabasca River for their food, livelihoods and recreation. We are committed to ensuring our operations do not have a negative impact on the quality of river water.
Suncor releases water back to the Athabasca River on a regular basis. Wastewater discharges are closely monitored by Suncor and reported to government regulators. Most of the discharged volume is “once through” water used for cooling that does not come into contact with any process materials. The remainder is process effluent and surface run-off waters. No tailings waters are discharged.
All water returned to the river is analyzed and treated prior to discharge to ensure water quality standards are stringently met. The Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), of which Suncor is a member, has found no discernable water quality changes in the Athabasca River since it began extensive monitoring in 1997.
Suncor's Water Performance
Suncor has reduced its absolute water use by 22 percent over the past six years. We realized these savings through increased reuse and recycling—in particular, improved mine tailings operations, which enabled increased recycling and reduced water makeup for tailings. These upgrades are part of our overall water management plan that is designed to let us return more treated wastewater to the Athabasca in coming years and to make even more significant reductions in our water use intensity.
In 2007, Suncor's oil sands mining operation used 2.3 cubic metres of river water to produce one cubic metre of oil—a 45 percent reduction in water intensity use since 2003. In 2008, we used 3.1 cubic metres of river water for each cubic metre of oil produced. The increase in water use intensity was primarily due to the fact that we returned significantly less water to the Athabasca in 2008 than in previous years due to plant reliability issues. Our operational excellence strategy is addressing these issues so that we can get performance back to expectations.