Water withdrawal in low flow conditions
Oil sands operators want to use as little water as possible. The more water we withdraw, the more we will have to treat and store in tailings ponds. At the same time, we are implementing new technologies to reduce or eliminate those storage ponds. Using less water is not only good for the environment, it also makes good business sense.
Suncor strives to continuously improve our water management practices. Through better reuse and recycling of water in our operations, Suncor has reduced our gross water withdrawal from the Athabasca River by approximately 52% since 2004, when 56 million cubic metres of fresh water was withdrawn. Our total water withdrawal is now below 1998 levels, even though production has more than tripled since that time. Suncor has also committed to reducing its fresh water intake by a further 12% by 2015 (as compared to 2007).
Read more about water management strategies
Many of our stakeholders remain concerned about the amount of water oil companies are allowed to withdraw from the Lower Athabasca River — particularly at a time when the industry is again on a significant growth curve. Industry, First Nations, environmental groups and government bodies have discussed the issue at length. Under the direction of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), those discussions have resulted in two successive water management frameworks for the Lower Athabasca River.
Suncor will continue to work with CEMA and governments, as well as environmental and Aboriginal groups, to better understand the Athabasca River system at low flow and to further protect the integrity of this important watershed.
Water management frameworks
In 2007, the Alberta and Canadian governments introduced the Phase I Water Management Framework for the Athabasca River, which set new restrictions on how much water the oil sands industry could cumulatively withdraw from the river during varying flow conditions — in particular, during low flow periods in the winter.
CEMA's Phase II Water Management Framework, completed in 2010, attempted to include an ecosystem base flow (EBF), which defines flow rates at which water withdrawals would cease if there is significant risk of harm to river biodiversity. However, there continues to be disagreement about the level at which an EBF should be set — in other words, how low should it go?
Of all major rivers in Alberta, the Athabasca River already has one of the lowest allocations, or licensed withdrawals levels — just 4.3%. By comparison, 28% of the North Saskatchewan River's flow is allocated, while more than 66% of both the Oldman and the Bow rivers are licensed for withdrawal.
Millions of dollars have been invested by CEMA and others to study the Athabasca River and try to predict what could happen at low flows. This has included:
- modelling low flows
- seeking out traditional knowledge from Aboriginals in the region
- involving world-class experts
- extensive sampling and monitoring
We know water withdrawals have been happening since the 1960s with no apparent impacts. We don't know if additional withdrawals will change that.
The Phase II Framework, which Alberta Environment and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are still reviewing, recommends the EBF for the river be set at 87 cubic metres per second − a rate so low that it has never happened since river monitoring began. At that flow, most current and future oil sands mining operators would stop withdrawals from the river and rely entirely on stored water. The exceptions are Suncor and Syncrude, which due to their plant designs are unable to cease water withdrawals completely. However, both agreed to reduce their withdrawal rate by 50% at the prescribed base flow rate.
The reason for the exemption for Canada's two oldest oil sands operators is that their licences were granted in the 1970s and are tied to the way their plants were designed, without on-site water storage facilities. So Suncor and Syncrude mining operations, as conducted currently, cannot operate without at least some fresh water intake, especially in the winter. On-site water storage facilities are part of newer oil sands mine licences, as well as planned ones.
The general consensus of the Phase II Framework committee (Suncor included) was that, at some extreme low flow, all water withdrawals should cease. However, we believe further monitoring and study is required before the appropriate level can be determined. In the meantime, both Suncor and Syncrude have agreed to voluntarily reduce their water withdrawals to half their maximum permitted allocation during periods of low flow.
Water storage facilities and land disturbance
For Suncor to now build water storage facilities would require significant land disturbance beyond our existing mining footprint. We believe this would have a net negative impact on the environment, especially given the rare occurrence of the base flow rates envisioned by the Phase II Framework.
Suncor is committed to minimizing land disturbance and reclaiming disturbed lands as quickly as possible. By the end of 2012, we had committed more than $1 billion to begin implementing new tailings reclamation technologies that are expected to dramatically reduce the time it takes to reclaim Suncor's mined lands and to eliminate the need for future tailings ponds.
Read more about our reclamation efforts