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.
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from the Athabasca River by approximately 58% since 2007, when 43.7 million cubic metres (m3) of fresh water was withdrawn.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.
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