Suncor strives to continuously improve our water performance. We committed to reducing our company-wide fresh water consumption by 12% by 2015 (as compared to 2007). We successfully met that goal with a fresh water consumption 27% lower than our 2007 usage in 2015.
In 2016, Suncor’s water intensity increased by 11% compared to 2015, primarily due to operational changes due to forest fires and lower production at oil sands. The forest fires in the Fort McMurray region significantly impacted oil sands, with less wastewater recycled due to operational upsets. The planned Upgrader 2 turnaround was also extended by more than one month due to the forest fire. As a result, oil sands production decreased by about 19% compared to 2015, which increased the overall fresh water consumption intensity.
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 53% since 2007. Our 2016 water withdrawal was about 35% of our water license of 59.8 Mm3 annually.
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