Water is a resource we must manage responsibly. Toward this, we aim to minimize the withdrawal of fresh water from the watershed, maximize reuse of process-affected water, and safely manage its storage.

Our Performance

Water Graphic 1

37.6 million

cubic metres of fresh water used in plant operations.

Strategies in place to reduce net water use by

five million cubic metres.

Water Graphic 3
Water Graphic 2

86% of all water used

recycled from tailings facilities.

Our Approach

Water is essential to Syncrude's operation and plays a key role in our production processes. However, we realize it is a resource that must be managed responsibly. Toward this, we aim to minimize the withdrawal of fresh water from the watershed, maximize reuse of process-affected water, and safely manage its storage. This includes taking steps to protect local water bodies, creeks and rivers, and to develop scientifically-sound treatment methods which will allow us to return water stored on our site safely back to the environment.

Our Water Sources

The majority of our operation relies on recycled water sourced from our tailings ponds. Of the total water used in 2015, 86 per cent was recycled from these facilities.

Our main source of fresh water is the Athabasca River, which provided the remaining 14 per cent of our water needs in 2015. This water is used to cool process water and generate steam, and for potable water. Our water license permit, granted in the 1970s, allows withdrawal of 61.7 million cubic metres of fresh water from the river annually, but we have always remained well below this limit. In 2015, we used about 0.2 per cent of the river’s average flow, or about 17 hours of the average annual flow.

Source: Alberta Environment & Parks

Water Use Performance

In 2015, we used 37.6 million cubic metres from the Athabasca River for production operations. As well, around one million cubic metres of basal groundwater was used in Aurora plant operations.

For non-production purposes, an additional six million cubic metres of fresh water was diverted from Beaver Creek Reservoir for the Base Mine Lake tailings reclamation demonstration project. To offset the fish habitat impacted by this diversion, we funded the Alberta Conservation Association’s work to protect and enhance the riparian zone and streambed of the Owl River, near Lac La Biche. The offset constitutes compensation, as per our Fisheries Act approval, for Harmful Alteration, Disruption or Destruction of fisheries habitat (known as HADD).

As per provincial regulation, precipitation and runoff that comes in contact with our mining area must be collected and routed into our tailings recycle water system. Over the last few years, extensive efforts have been undertaken to return clean surface water and basal groundwater from our leases back into the surrounding watershed. In 2015, about eight million cubic metres of water was successfully returned to the environment, instead of being diverted to tailings storage facilities, upon meeting provincial water quality standards.

Fresh Water Withdrawal from Athabasca River1

1 Operations use only.

Toward Great Water Efficiency

Syncrude is working to identify and implement processes and technologies to reduce net water use from the Athabasca River. A number of opportunities have been identified which could reduce net annual withdrawals from the Athabasca River incrementally by at least five million cubic metres over the next several years.

Actions are already underway. For example, the Syncrude Emissions Reduction Project, which started operation in late 2013, is reusing about one million cubic metres of water from the reverse osmosis units in our water treatment plant. We also completed construction in 2015 of a condensate stripper in our hydrogen plant which will save about half a million cubic metres per year.

Source: Government of Alberta

Research Progresses on Treatment and Release

Presently, Syncrude does not release process-affected water to the environment. The only releases to the Athabasca River are treated sanitary sewage similar to that from municipalities, as well as clean surface and aquifer water that has not been used in the bitumen production process. All releases are tested to ensure they meet government specified quality regulations.

However, we recognize that storing process-affected water is not a viable long-term practice. To expedite landscape restoration activities and improve overall environmental stewardship, the hydrology of the reclaimed landscape must be integrated within the surrounding environment. To address these challenges, Syncrude collaborates through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and with academic institutions to research water treatment methods.

For example, Syncrude’s Research department is investigating tailings water treatment using petroleum coke, a byproduct of our upgrading process. The treatment is similar to using a home water filter. The coke, which is almost pure carbon, acts as a filter that removes contaminants such as naphthenic acids. Field programs completed to date confirm the method produces water that safely supports aquatic life. Subject to regulatory approval, we are planning a larger pilot-scale plant to further assess treatment efficiency, and provide engineering design information necessary for potential commercial-scale implementation.

(Above) The Athabasca River valley.

Regional Water Monitoring

The Joint Canada-Alberta Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) was established in 2012 by the provincial and federal governments to ensure credible, transparent and science-based environmental monitoring of the oil sands industry. Coordinated through the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Evaluation and Reporting Agency (AEMERA) and Environment and Climate Change Canada, activities include water, biodiversity and ecosystem health monitoring.

Results are published regularly and are peer reviewed. The 2014–2015 Technical Results Summary states: “Water quality data collected from 2011 to 2014 by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in the lower Athabasca River, and for the 12 sites in and around the Peace-Athabasca Delta were assessed against 36 Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) guidelines. For 19 parameters (alkalinity, pH, 2 nitrogen nutrients, 5 total metals, methylmercury and 9 organic substances), the nearly 900 samples showed no exceedances in any samples.” Exceedances were noted for certain PACs (polycyclic aromatic compounds), although the frequency was less than four per cent of the total number of samples taken, and occurred within the range of annual variation and only during periods of high flow and high runoff. Download the complete summary here.

In 2016, the Alberta Government moved the responsibilities of AEMERA under the Ministry of Environment and Parks, Environmental Monitoring and Science Division. Further details on water monitoring activities in the oil sands region can be found here.

Performance Data

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Fresh water withdrawal1 (million m3) 38.50 39.60 37.20 38.80 37.64
Fresh water use intensity (barrel water per barrel crude oil produced) 2.28 2.35 2.37 2.55 2.57
Fresh water use intensity2 (barrel water per barrel bitumen produced) 1.36 1.46 1.43 1.61 1.62
Water returned to the Athabasca River - treated sanitary (million m3) 0 0 0 0 0
Water returned to the Athabasca River - other (million m3) 7.9 4.8 5.9 6.5 7.9
Process water recycled (million m3) 270 242 259 218 236
Process water recycled (% total water used) 88 86 87 85 86
Water discharge quality exceedences (treated sanitary) (# incidents) 0 0 0 0 0
Water discharge quality exceedences (industrial process) (# incidents) 0 0 0 0 0
Reportable spills to natural water bodies (m3) 0 0 0 0 0

1 Direct operations use only. In 2015, under regulatory approval, an additional 6.0 Mm3 of fresh water was diverted from Beaver Creek Reservoir for the Base Mine Lake tailings reclamation demonstration project. Also, an additional 0.85 Mm3 of basal groundwater was diverted for use in Aurora plant operations.
2 Historical data for fresh water use per barrel of bitumen has been based on total water withdrawn from the Athabasca River for the entire operation, inclusive of both bitumen production and upgrader processes. Data now reflects the estimated volume of water used only in the bitumen production process. Previous years have been restated.