The latest update on how Suncor is working to reduce water consumption in oil sands development – 2013 Report on Sustainability

Sustainable water use – Suncor’s 2013 Report on Sustainability

Reducing water use and improving water management – read about how Suncor is working towards sustainable water use in the 2013 Report on Sustainability

Reducing water use and improving water management – read about how Suncor is working towards sustainable water use in the 2013 Report on Sustainability

View the latest Report on Sustainability


Water is a shared and 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 for current and future generations. Suncor strives to continuously raise the bar on its corporate-wide water performance and water management practices.

Suncor’s water performance

Suncor views water management as a key part of its Environmental Excellence Plan. As we pursue our goal of reducing corporate-wide fresh water consumption by 12% by 2015 (as compared to 2007), all of our upstream and downstream operations are realizing opportunities for more sustainable water use. We are paying particular attention to our oil sands mining operations, which represent Suncor’s biggest draw on fresh water resources. Read more about oils sands mining

A key benchmark particularly during periods of production growth is the amount of water consumed for each barrel of oil produced, also known as water consumption intensity. We continue to make significant progress in this area.

In 2012, our oil sands mining operation consumed 2.06 cubic metres of river water and groundwater to produce one cubic metre of oil a 10% reduction in water consumption intensity since 2007. We expect to make further incremental changes and improvements as we continue to implement Suncor’s Oil Sands Water Management Strategy. For example, once our new wastewater treatment plant is in operation — commissioning is now planned for 2014 — we expect we will have reduced our river water withdrawal by about 65% compared to 2007. Learn more about our Oil Sands Water Management Strategy

We are also continuing to make significant reductions in water consumption intensity across most of our other business units.

Water Consumption Intensity

*Beginning in 2009, includes consolidated post-merger data.

(1) Oil Sands data in 2008 included Firebag operations. Since 2009 Firebag has been included in In Situ business unit.

(2) Previously called Natural Gas

(3) In Situ data includes Firebag and MacKay River operations.

(4) International and Offshore water withdrawal data for 2009 included only

Water Withdrawal and Consumption

* Beginning in 2009, includes consolidated post-merger data.

** The 2011 values were revised from previous years’ reports due to data and process improvements in 2012 which improved the understanding of site conditions for specific facilities.

How Suncor uses and recycles water

Water is an essential part of Suncor's operations. So it's important to find ways to more effectively and efficiently use and recycle water across our business units.

Some key examples:

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Oil sands mining

Suncor's 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 sand settles out and the water is recycled back to the extraction process. Approximately 85% of the water used by our mining and extraction 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 66 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 licence even as production levels increase.

In 2012, Suncor withdrew 26.61 million cubic metres of water from the Athabasca, while releasing 11.02 million cubic metres of treated water back into the river.

Some other leading indicators of our oil sands mining water performance include:

  • Suncor's gross fresh water withdrawal from the Athabasca River has declined by 52% since 2004 when 56 million cubic metres of fresh water was withdrawn.


As the oil sands industry grows, Suncor recognizes the need to increasingly focus on the cumulative demands development places on regional water resources over the long term. Understanding that water impacts and challenges extend well beyond our own plant gates, we are also working closely with fellow oil sands operators, regulators and other stakeholders to provide better water management across the Athabasca River watershed.

Beginning in 2009, Suncor worked as part of the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) to advance a regional approach to industry-wide water management practices. In particular, we led the Regional Water Management Solutions (RWMS) project designed to test the technical, regulatory and commercial feasibility of treating and reusing tailings water for both in situ and mining operations.

Our leadership in this project led to us implementing this opportunity between our own regional operations as part of an internal multi-phase water management plan. Our goal: to become one of the lowest net water consumption intensity users in the oil sands mining business. In 2012 and 2013, we made significant progress in taking our water strategy from the planning stage to implementation.

Read more about Suncor's Oil Sands Water Management Strategy

We are continuing to collaborate with industry peers on regional solutions to water management through Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), which includes 14 companies, representing nearly 90% of oil sands production.

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Oil 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 is 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 oil sands upgrading and utilities operations, eliminating the need for fresh surface water or groundwater, which could be used for drinking water. In 2013, we began sending tailings water as makeup water to Firebag.

Read more about Suncor’s Oil Sands Water Management Strategy

At our MacKay River in situ facility (where about 99% of the water is recycled), the majority of makeup water comes from groundwater. Most of that water is too high in salt content to be used for drinking water or for agriculture.

Suncor refineries draw on local fresh water sources

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 42% of the total water withdrawn in 2012 was recycled wastewater supplied from the municipal Gold Bar Wastewater Treatment Plant, significantly reducing the amount of fresh water 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 is treated through the facility's own full-scale wastewater treatment plant before being returned to the lake.

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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 non-fresh groundwater that is not suitable for drinking or agriculture — is used, wherever possible, as an alternative to fresh water. Natural gas operations are relatively low-intensity water users.

Suncor's North America Onshore business* has realized some promising results from a pilot project to recycle and reuse the water that is pumped back up from the ground during hydraulic fracturing — known as flowback water — for subsequent 'fracks' instead of using new water. Suncor has now implemented this environmental best practice, and where possible, flowback water will be recycled and reused to decrease our water withdrawal.

In addition to conserving water, these initiatives to recycle flowback water are resulting in significant costs savings — another example of environmental performance improvements also making good business sense.

* In April 2013, Suncor announced an agreement to sell the conventional portion of its natural gas business in Western Canada. Excluded from the sale are the majority of Suncor's unconventional natural gas properties in British Columbia and the company’s Wilson Creek, Alberta unconventional oil assets.

International & Offshore

The only fresh water 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 produced offshore through de-salination or is transferred via vessel from St. John's, N.L. In our North Sea offshore operations, even the domestic water comes from de-salinated seawater.

Read more about offshore operations on