Report on Sustainability 2019

Water performance and stewardship

Suncor is committed to the responsible development of the oil sands. How we manage water is critical to us as a company, to neighbouring Indigenous communities and to our stakeholders – it’s also crucial to achieve our vision and commitments for faster reclamation and mine closure.

Our use of water is guided by water stewardship principles that focus on:

  • water conservation
  • reuse and recycle
  • return of treated wastewater to the watershed

We continue to invest in water treatment research and development, including participating in industry collaboration, academic research and piloting new technology.

Suncor also plans 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 Indigenous communities. Our expectation is that the new goal will reflect our water requirements and the need to maintain healthy, clean watersheds.

Water management is essential to our operations and the well-being of our environment, so we’re taking steps to steward sustainable water practices in our business.
Anita Selinger
Specialist, water treatment

2018 Suncor fresh water use and intensity

In 2018, our fresh water consumption was 46.52 million m3. This increase can be attributed to the Fort Hills start up. At our oil sands Base plant we continue to optimize wastewater recycle rates to decrease fresh water withdrawal from the Athabasca River.

Suncor's GHG technology funnel graphic
Suncor's GHG technology funnel graphic
* For additional information about these charts and their data, please refer to performance data notes (#8 – notes on water use and return).

Water stewardship highlights

Water conservation

Mining and extraction

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.

We have a separate water license allocation of up to 39.3 million m3 of river water annually for the Fort Hills project. Fort Hills fresh water consumption intensity is high due to ramp-up of the site. Fort Hills is building up water inventory for recycling. As we better understand our operational water use and efficiency at Fort Hills, we will continue to explore opportunities to further reduce water use. Taken together, the Base plant and Fort Hills allocations represent about 0.5% of the Athabasca River’s annual average flow.

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.

Reuse and recycling

Mining and extraction

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.

Over the last few years, we have also seen a reduction in fresh water use at our oil sands Base plant due to optimizing wastewater recycle, and return to the environment. Approximately 88% of the water used by our mining and extraction operations in 2018 was recycled tailings water.

In situ

At our Firebag in situ site, approximately 96% of the water used 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.

While at our MacKay River in situ facility, close to 100% of the water is recycled and MacKay River has zero liquid discharge. 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.


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.

At our Edmonton refinery, approximately 33% of the total water withdrawn in 2018 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.

Suncor’s Commerce City refinery uses both city water and collected groundwater for steam production and cooling, as well as to wash out the natural contaminants in crude oil, like salts and minerals, to prevent corrosion in our processing units. Much of this water is recycled for reuse at our facility, and the remaining portion is treated and discharged to a local waterway, Sand Creek, under a permit issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Return of treated water to watershed

The primary source for make-up water for our mining and extraction operations is the Athabasca River. In 2018, our oil sands Base plant withdrew about 15.7 million m3 of water from the Athabasca River, while returning 2.2 million m3 of treated water back into the river.

As part of our mine closure plan, we are currently investigating ways to safely return treated tailings water to the environment. We are piloting this through our demonstration pit lake (DPL) - now known as Lake Miwasin - 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 Lake Miwasin 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.

Research and development

As Suncor continues to lead and innovate in water treatment, we 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.

Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC)

The Water Technology Development Centre (WTDC) is an example of our industry collaboration. The $145 million WTDC, attached to Suncor’s Firebag Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) central processing facility is now operational.

Suncor and its partners will use the facility to test drive multiple water technologies concurrently, enabling the partners to conduct more pilots than each could on their own, while sharing the risks and costs. This 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.

The WTDC allows the partner companies to test more technologies than each could on their own, while sharing the risks and costs of development.
Brad Sobey
Manager, operations technology development

In May 2019, Suncor was named JWN Energy Excellence Awards champion in the Operational and Project Excellence – Oil Sands Category for the Water Technology Development Centre.

High temperature reverse osmosis produced water treatment

Suncor has partnered with Devon Energy and Suez Water Technologies and Solutions -with funding support from Emissions Reductions Alberta (ERA), in a project that develops high temperature reverse osmosis (HTRO) membranes suited for SAGD treatment conditions. If successful, a high temperature membrane plant could reduce the energy required and infrastructure for the SAGD water treatment process.

Learn more about HTRO from Suncor’s Mick McGregor, senior technology engineer.

Commerce City wastewater treatment facility

In 2017, our Commerce City refinery operationalized a $65 million upgrade to our existing wastewater treatment facility, leveraging a technology called membrane ultrafiltration to treat and filter the water. The facility is one of the first in North America to use this technology in treating refinery wastewater streams.

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Recommended readings
Upgrading and refining technologies
Collaboration and partnerships
In situ technologies