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Rodney Guest, sustainability water specialist, Suncor EnergyWater is a precious resource that must be managed wisely. Responsible energy development means balancing industry's water requirements with the need to maintain a clean, safe and plentiful supply of this important natural resource.

Suncor views water management as a key part of its Environmental Excellence Plan. We have already achieved significant reductions in water consumption (the amount of fresh water withdrawn minus the amount of water returned to the environment) at our oil sands operations.

As the energy industry in general, and the oil sands industry in particular, return to a growth footing, Suncor recognizes the need to increasingly focus on the cumulative demands development places on regional water resources over the long term. In our oil sands operations in northern Alberta, we are taking a more holistic approach to how we withdraw, use, treat and recycle water at both our mining and in-situ facilities. Understanding that water impacts and challenges extend well beyond our own plant gates, we are also working closer than ever with fellow oil sands operators, regulators and other stakeholders to provide better water management across the Athabasca watershed.

In 2010, Suncor took several significant steps to advance this more comprehensive and collaborative approach to water management. Among them: recycling a portion of treated wastewater to reduce river water withdrawal; working through the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) to encourage new water treatment technologies and improve operational expertise across OSLI's member companies; and beginning deliberations on a long-term regional water strategy that will shape how Suncor deals with this issue for decades to come.

Water Fundamentals

Water is an essential part of Suncor's operations. To identify where efficiencies can be achieved, it is helpful to understand how our businesses use and recycle water. Some key examples:

Oil Sands Mining: Our mining operations mix oil sands with water to separate out the bitumen. The cleaned sand and water are then sent to tailings storage ponds where the water is recycled back to the extraction process. Approximately 75% of the water used by our mining operations is recycled tailings water. The primary source for the rest is the Athabasca River, one of Alberta's largest river basins. Suncor is licensed to withdraw approximately 59.8 million cubic metres of water annually from the Athabasca — about 0.3% of the river's annual average flow. We continue to operate well below our water license even as production levels increase. For example, in 2010 Suncor withdrew 35.6 million cubic metres of water from the Athabasca, while releasing 6.7 million cubic metres of treated water back into the river.

Oils Sands In Situ: Our in situ operations reach oil sands deposits buried too deep to be mined (about 80% of the proven oil sands reserves are in this category). We use water to create the high-pressure steam that's injected through a well to heat the bitumen underground. This makes the bitumen less viscous, allowing it to flow to the surface. Most of the steam condenses in the reservoir and returns to the surface with the oil. This water is then separated, treated and recycled. More than 90% of the water used at our Firebag in situ sites is recycled. The makeup is drawn from recycled wastewater from our mine operations and saline groundwater, eliminating the need for fresh surface water or drinking-quality groundwater. At our MacKay River in situ facility (where about 95% of the water is recycled), the majority of makeup water does come from groundwater — but most of that water is too high in salt content to be used for drinking water or for agriculture.

Refining: Suncor's four refineries use water for heating and cooling. The Montreal, Edmonton, Sarnia and Commerce City refineries draw on local fresh water sources. In the case of our Edmonton refinery, approximately 50% of the total water withdrawn in 2010 was recycled wastewater supplied from the municipal Gold Bar Wastewater Treatment Plant, significantly reducing the amount of freshwater withdrawn from the North Saskatchewan River. Our Lubricants Centre in Mississauga also uses water, drawing it from Lake Ontario for process use in the manufacture of lubricants. Once that water has been used, it's treated through the facility's own full-scale wastewater treatment plant before being returned to the lake. Visit for more information.

North America Onshore: Water is used in certain types of natural gas deposits to push the gas out of tight or sandy areas. Brackish water — deep groundwater that's not suitable for drinking or agriculture — is used, wherever possible, as an alternative to freshwater. Compared to oil sands and refining, natural gas operations are relatively low-intensity water users.

East Coast Canada & International: The only freshwater consumed in our offshore operations is for cooking, drinking, showers and other domestic purposes — in our East Coast Canada operations, for example, that water is either manufactured offshore through de-salination or is transferred via vessel from St. John's. In our North Sea offshore operations, even the domestic water comes from de-salinated seawater. In our operations in Syria, water is used for conventional oil and gas exploration and drilling.

Water Performance

Oil sands mining represents Suncor's biggest draw on freshwater resources. However, we are making significant progress in reducing our freshwater demands. Suncor's gross fresh water withdrawal from the Athabasca River has declined by 36% since 2004, when 56 million cubic metres of fresh water was withdrawn. We are now below 1998 levels in terms of water withdrawal, even though average daily bitumen production has more than tripled. In 2010 alone, Suncor's fresh water withdrawal from the Athabasca River decreased 12% from 2009. We realized those savings through increased reuse and recycling — in particular, improved mine tailings operations, which enabled increased recycling and reduced water makeup for tailings.

A key benchmark of progress — particularly during periods of production growth — is the amount of water consumed for each barrel of oil produced, otherwise known as water consumption intensity. In 2010, Suncor's oil sands mining operation consumed 2.04 cubic metres of river water and groundwater to produce one cubic metre of oil — a 40% reduction in water consumption intensity since 2003. Suncor's water consumption intensity in 2010 was 11% lower than in 2009.

As Suncor pursues its goal of reducing corporate-wide fresh water consumption by 12% by 2015 (as compared to 2007), we are asking all of our upstream and downstream operations to identify the best opportunities for more sustainable water use. As part of that initiative, we will be paying particular attention to our oil sands operations.

Water Consumption Intensity

Water Withdrawal and Water Consumption

Water Quality

Suncor is committed to meeting or exceeding government water quality standards for all waters we discharge to the environment.

Our oil sands mining operations returns 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 runoff waters. Processes are in place to ensure that: all water returned to the river is analyzed and treated prior to discharge to ensure quality standards are stringently met; no tailings waters are normally discharged.

Suncor is an active member of the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), a multi-stakeholder forum that assesses water quality and flow in the rivers and lakes of northeastern Alberta. Since RAMP began monitoring in 1997, it has detected no known impacts to the Athabasca River ecosystem due to oil sands production. Results from other water bodies in the region have also shown no significant changes to surface water quality. Visit RAMP for more information.

In 2010, both the Alberta and federal governments appointed independent advisory panels to review water monitoring data collected from the oil sands region. This followed a study by a team of scientists, including the University of Alberta's Dr. David Schindler, that reported the oil industry releases, via air and water, 13 elements considered priority pollutants elements (PPE) under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act. The study added that, in the 2008 snowpack, all PPE except selenium were greater near oil sands developments than at more remote sites.

The federal panel, which reported in December 2010, concluded that there were “significant shortcomings” in federal-provincial monitoring.

The Alberta panel, which reported in March 2011, reached a similar conclusion, stating there was a need for more comprehensive monitoring and greater scientific analysis to determine the level of pollutants in the river and the source of those pollutants.

Protecting the Athabasca River is complicated by the fact that naturally occurring outcrops of bitumen deposit heavy metals and hydrocarbons into the river as it flows through the basin, and have been doing so for thousands of years. Alberta's expert panel concluded that some of the contaminants found in the water almost certainly are not naturally occurring. But the panel added that more study is needed before there is a definitive answer on how much industrial pollution ends up on the land and in the river.

The Alberta and federal environment ministries continued to work towards significantly revamped reporting and environmental monitoring systems, with changes expected to be announced in 2011. Suncor recognizes the importance of ongoing aquatic monitoring of the Athabasca River. Management reviews the impact of water use and water quality as part of a regular risk review. Suncor welcomes the review of the current monitoring systems by different levels of government to improve its effectiveness and transparency. Suncor will work with stakeholders and industry partners to improve the processes and ensure regional monitoring systems are robust.

Further, Suncor recognizes the importance of preserving the health of the Athabasca River. The river provides habitat for many species of fish and other aquatic organisms and feeds into Lake Athabasca, from which First Nations take their fish. It is also a source of water for the industry itself. We will continue to closely monitor our own operations to ensure we meet or exceed existing and future water quality standards and environmental monitoring requirements.

Suncor takes similar steps to ensure the quality of water discharges across our operations. For example, the water drawn from Lake Ontario for use at our Lubricants Centre in Mississauga is treated through a process that takes advantage of naturally occurring biological processes rather than depending solely on chemical treatment and meets or exceeds regulatory requirements. In fact, our monitoring systems show we are regularly putting water back into Lake Ontario that's of better quality than the water we withdrew.

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