Learn more about Suncor's water withdrawal and consumption performance

Learn more about Suncor's water withdrawal and consumption performance

Learn more about Suncor's water withdrawal and consumption performance

Learn more about Suncor's water withdrawal and consumption performance

View the latest Report on Sustainability

Suncor employees at the Nikanotee Fen, an environmental reclamation initiative

Water use

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Many of our stakeholders remain concerned about the amount of water oil sands producers are allowed to withdraw from the Lower Athabasca River. Industry, First Nations, Aboriginal Peoples, environmental groups and government bodies have discussed the issue at length.

Reducing our water withdrawals

Suncor strives to continuously improve our water performance. We committed to reducing our company-wide freshwater consumption by 12% by 2015 (as compared to 2007). Our company-wide freshwater consumption is now 27% lower than our 2007 usage. We are now working towards a new water goal.

Through better water reuse and recycling in our operations, we have reduced our gross water withdrawal from the Athabasca River by approximately 58% since 2007, when 43.7 million cubic metres (m3) of fresh water was withdrawn. Our total water withdrawal is now below 1998 levels, even though production has more than tripled since that time.

Read more about our fresh water consumption goal.

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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 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 of the water is the Athabasca River in one of Alberta’s largest river basins.

Read more about our mining operations on suncor.com

Our oil sands base plant is licensed to withdraw up to 59.8 million m3 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.

Over the last few years, Suncor executed a water management strategy at our oil sands base plant facilities to reduce the amount of water stored on site in tailings ponds and manage water quality in the system. The strategy contains three phases and more than 15 projects that:

  • conserve or eliminate water use
  • reuse water where possible
  • return clean water to the watershed

The impact of the strategy has resulted in Suncor reducing its water withdrawal rates dramatically since 2007 from the Athabasca River. In 2015, we withdrew 18.16 million m3 of water from the Athabasca, while releasing 1.61 million m3 of treated water back into the river. Our gross fresh water withdrawal from the Athabasca River has declined by 58% since 2007 when 43.7 million m3 of fresh water was withdrawn. Our oil sands mining operation consumed 1.4 cubic metres (m3) of water to produce one m3 of oil — a 33% reduction in water consumption intensity since 2007.

While a significant amount of the water use reduction is permanent, over the longer term Suncor’s water withdrawal from the river will increase and stabilize to maintain a water balance and dissolved ion chemistry to successfully achieve reclamation objectives for mine closure.

Our oil sands water strategy is further presented below

Concept #1: Directly reuse tailings water

The first major phase of our water strategy, formally commissioned in 2013, involves sending treated tailings water from our oil sands base plant to our in situ water network. There, the tailings water is used as a makeup water supply.

The result is a system designed to allow up to 10,000 cubic metres (m3) (or four Olympic-sized swimming pools) of tailings water per day to be used as in situ makeup water instead of being stored in tailings ponds.

This project is unique in several respects. Reusing tailings water for makeup water in the in situ extraction process is new not only for us, but for the entire industry.

This initiative was one of three separate projects to be honoured with the President's Award during the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) Responsible Canadian Energy Awards in 2014.

Concept #2: Recycling industrial wastewater

In 2014, we commissioned a new wastewater plant designed to take wastewater from our upgrading ponds and remove solids and oils, so we can reuse that water in our operations or return it to the environment.

The plant can recycle all of the upgrading wastewater between 22,550 and 43,222 litres of water per minute, depending on the time of year (or 12 to 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools per day) and could offset the need for river water by an equivalent amount.

This project allows Suncor greater flexibility to manage water across the site depending on overall needs and changes to the watershed. With the wastewater treatment plant in operation, Suncor has the potential to reduce our river water withdrawal by about 65% compared to 2007.

The next step: expand initiatives to treat and reuse tailings water and wastewater

The third phase of our strategy will target further water use reductions by designing more systems to reduce and reuse water (tailings or wastewater) from operations for a variety of purposes. These improvements in efficiency will reduce the amount of fresh water we require.

As we continue to lead and innovate, we will share the lessons learned with our industry peers through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). By doing so, we are confident we can reduce the regional operational footprint and better protect natural water resources.

Fort Hills

Fort Hills, operated by Suncor is scheduled to produce first oil in 2017. The project has started to use river water for drinking water for the construction worker housing facilities, to establish a water cap in the out of pit tailings area and to start filling the on-site water storage.

We have a separate water license allocation of up to 32.3 million m3 of water annually for the Fort Hills project, which was sanctioned in 2013 and is expected to begin production in late 2017. Taken together, the base plant and Fort Hills allocations represent about 0.47% of the Athabasca River's annual average flow.

As we better understand our operational water use and efficiency, we will continue to explore opportunities to further reduce water use.

In situ

Our in situ operations reach oil sands deposits buried too deep to be mined (about 97% of the reserves that underlie the oil sands surface area 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 process 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.

Approximately 96% of the water used at our Firebag in situ sites is recycled which is higher than the provincially regulated  directive of 90%. The makeup is drawn from recycled wastewater from our oil sands upgrading and utilities operations, eliminating the need for fresh surface water or potable groundwater.

At our MacKay River in situ facility (where about 98% of the water is recycled), the majority of makeup water comes from groundwater. Most of that water is too high in salt and mineral content to be used for drinking water or agriculture.

Over the last five years, in-situ fresh water use intensity has decreased by over 75% primarily due to tripling our production while not increasing fresh water use and also due to wastewater recycling.

Downstream draw on local fresh water sources

Our refineries and lubricants center use fresh water for heating and cooling.   In 2015, the five facilities represented about half our total corporate water use. 

While water use has remained relatively flat, there have been local initiatives that have resulted in reduced water use.  For example, In the case of our Edmonton refinery, approximately 34% of the total water withdrawn in 2015 was recycled wastewater supplied from the municipal Gold Bar Wastewater Treatment Plant, significantly reducing the amount of freshwater withdrawn from the North Saskatchewan River.

Suncor completed a comprehensive detailed water risk assessment for all operations in 2013 and also utilized the IPIECA Global Water Tool for Oil & Gas. Suncor has a strategic Issues Management Process (SIMP) that captures and responds to rapid developing water risks.

East Coast Canada

The only fresh water consumed in our offshore operations is for cooking, drinking, showers and other domestic purposes. In our East Coast Canada operations water is either produced offshore through desalination or is transferred via vessel from St. John’s, N.L.

Read more about offshore operations on suncor.com

Recommended base flow rate

The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) Surface Water Quantity Management Framework’s Ecological Base Flow (EBF) for the river is 87 cubic metres per second (m3/s) — 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 (oil sands base plant) and Syncrude, which due to legacy plant designs are unable to store the water required to completely cease water withdrawals. However, we have both agreed to reduce our withdrawal rate by 50% at the EBF and we are evaluating additional measures to reduce withdrawals even further. At our base plant, we have reduced our water withdrawal by 58% since 2007. Our 2015 water withdrawal was about 30% of our water license of 59.8 Mm3 annual.

The reason for the exemption for Canada’s two oldest oil sands operators is that our licences were granted in the 1960s and 1970s based on the way plants were designed then – without on-site water storage facilities. Our mining operations, as well as Syncrude’s, cannot operate without at least some fresh water intake, especially in the winter.

All new oil sands mines, including Suncor’s Fort Hills mine scheduled to begin operations in late 2017, have on-site water storage facilities to supply water when withdrawals are not permitted.

The general consensus (including ours) is that, at some extreme low flow, all water withdrawals should cease. We believe further regional monitoring, such as programs previously undertaken by Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA) and now Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP), is required before the appropriate level can be determined. In the meantime, both Suncor and Syncrude have agreed to voluntarily reduce water withdrawals to half the maximum permitted allocation during periods of low flow.

Water storage and land disturbance

For us to build water storage facilities at our existing operations now would require significant land disturbance beyond our existing mining footprint and result in additional energy use and GHG emissions We believe this would have a negative impact on the environment, especially given the rare occurrence of the base flow rates envisioned by the LARP Surface Water Quantity Management Framework.

Read more about our reclamation efforts