Suncor fresh water use and intensity
At Suncor, water is essential to our operations – and we know that it’s a valuable resource we share with the communities where we operate. Our use of water is guided by water stewardship principles that focus on:
- water conservation
- reuse and recycle
- return of clean water to the watershed
And we remain focused on our commitment to water stewardship. In 2017, our fresh water consumption was 22.3 million m3 – our lowest water use in almost 20 years. The reduction in water consumption was driven primarily by the sale of our Lubricants business, a significant consumer of fresh water, in early 2017 and optimization of wastewater recycle rates at our oil sands base plant.
Suncor’s fresh water use intensity for our oil sands base plant is also the lowest on record at 0.8 m3 / m3.
We continue to invest in research and development on water treatment, including participating in:
- industry collaboration
- academic research
- piloting projects on our sites
Suncor is committed to the responsible development of the oil sands. How we manage water is critical to us as a company, to neighbouring Aboriginal communities and to our stakeholders – it’s also crucial to achieve our vision and commitments for faster reclamation and mine closure.
We plan on extending our commitment to water stewardship by setting a new long-term water goal. This builds on learnings from our previous water goal, the success of our water-management strategy and input from Aboriginal communities. Our expectation is that the new goal will reflect our water requirements and the need to maintain healthy, clean watersheds.
Water performance highlights
Mining and extraction
In oil sands mining, heated water is used to separate the bitumen from sand and clay. 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.
The reduction in fresh water use at our oil sands base plant over the last few years is due to a focus on optimizing our wastewater recycle, and return to the environment. Approximately 92% of the water used by our mining and extraction operations in 2017 was recycled tailings water.
The primary source for make-up water is the Athabasca River. In 2017, we withdrew about 15.9 million m3 of water from the Athabasca River, while returning 1.7 million m3 of treated water back into the river.
Our oil sands base plant is licensed to withdraw up to 59.8 million m3 of water annually from the Athabasca River – about 0.3% of the river’s annual average flow. We continue to operate well below our water license, withdrawing less water than we’re licensed to do so, even as our production levels increase.
Recognizing our role as a steward of a valuable natural resource, we developed a water management strategy which focuses on balancing three components:
- Reducing fresh water intake by optimizing our water withdrawal practices
- Recycling and re-using water in our operations
- Safely and responsibly returning treated water to the environment
Direct reuse of tailings water
The first major phase of our oil sands water strategy 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 make-up water supply. The result is a system designed to allow up to 10,000 m3 (or four Olympic-sized swimming pools) of tailings water per day, to be used as in situ make-up water, instead of being stored in our tailings ponds. Since 2010, we have reused 10.7 million m3 of tailings water in our in situ facility.
Recycling/returning 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.
This plant can recycle all of its wastewater – 15.8 million m3/year (or 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools per day) and ultimately, could reduce the need for river water by an equivalent amount.
As part of our mine closure plan, we are currently investigating ways to safely return clean, treated tailings water to the environment. We are piloting this through our Demonstration Pit Lake (DPL) using a closed loop system where we maintain control of the water over a number of years and once it meets regulatory criteria, and upon government approval, expect to allow water from the DPL to be naturally released to the environment.
The DPL is part of our aquatic closure technology development program, designed to ensure we can successfully reclaim mine sites. The DPL project incorporated the Permanent Aquatic Storage Structure (PASS) fluid tailings treatment process as the first step to accelerating the process, to establish a lake capable of supporting a full ecosystem of aquatic life. An aquatic cover will now be established on the treated tailings and operated in the same way that is planned for the full scale closure drainage system.
Pit lakes are a necessary part of successful closure and reclamation plans, and are considered a best practice in mining industries around the world. There are a number of pit lakes in Alberta that were created from former coal mine pits, which are now used for recreational fishing, swimming and continue to demonstrate naturally colonized fish and staging areas for migratory birds. The additional research and understanding derived from this work is expected to help ensure the oil sands pit lakes are viable features in the closure landscape.
We have a separate water license allocation of up to 39.3 million m3 of river water annually for the Fort Hills project. Taken together, the base plant and Fort Hills allocations represent about 0.5% of the Athabasca River’s annual average flow.
As we better understand our operational water use and efficiency at Fort Hills, we will continue to explore opportunities to further reduce water use.
Our in situ operations 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 96.5% of the water used at our Firebag in situ site is recycled. The make-up is drawn from recycled wastewater from our oil sands upgrading and utilities operations, surface run-off water collected within the facility boundary and from groundwater wells.
At our MacKay River in situ facility (where close to 100% of the water is recycled), the majority of make-up water comes from groundwater. And it’s important to note most of this water is too high in salt and mineral content to be used for potable water or agriculture.
Over the last five years, our in situ fresh water use intensity has decreased by over 69%, primarily due to our continuous improvement efforts – such as wastewater recycling – to maintain the fresh water use while tripling our production. Suncor’s in situ water consumption intensity is 0.09 m3/m3.
As Suncor continues to lead and innovate, we will share the lessons learned and technologies 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.
An example of this is the Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC). Scheduled to open later this year, the $165 million WTDC will be attached to our Firebag in situ operations, which uses Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD). When complete, Suncor and our COSIA partners will test drive more technologies than we could on our own, while sharing the risks and costs. This is another example of COSIA collaboration, which will allow operators to speed the development and implementation of new water treatment technologies, ultimately shortening the current eight-year time frame required to field test technologies and move them to commercial application.
Our refineries use fresh water for heating and cooling. While water use has remained relatively flat, there have been local initiatives that have resulted in more efficient water use. For example, at our Edmonton refinery, approximately one-third of the total water withdrawn in 2017 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.
The Refining and Supply facilities’ water consumption and intensity was lower, primarily due to sale of our Lubricants facility in February 2017.
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, Newfoundland.