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

34.9 million cubic metres

of fresh water used in plant operations.

Progress on reducing water use by

four million cubic metres.

Water Graphic 3
Water Graphic 2

87% 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 release 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 2016, 87 per cent was recycled from these facilities.

Our main source of fresh water is the Athabasca River, which provided approximately 13 per cent of our water needs in 2016. This water is used for cooling, to generate steam, and for potable water and fine water systems. Our water license permit, granted in the 1970s, allows withdrawal of 61.7 million m3 of fresh water from the river annually, but we have always remained well below this limit. In 2016, we used about 0.18 per cent of the river’s average flow, or about 16.2 hours of the average flow during the entire year.

Source: Alberta Energy Regulator

Water Use Performance

In 2016, we withdrew 34.9 million cubic metres from the Athabasca River for production operations. As well, close to one million cubic metres of basal groundwater was used in Aurora plant operations.

For non-production purposes, an additional three million cubic metres of fresh water was diverted from Beaver Creek Reservoir for the Base Mine Lake tailings reclamation demonstration project. To offset this diversion, we fund 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 is collected and routed into our tailings recycle water system. Over the last few years, extensive efforts have been undertaken to ensure natural surface water and basal groundwater from our leases remain in the watershed. In 2016, approximately five million cubic metres of water was diverted to the environment upon meeting provincial water quality standards.

Fresh Water Withdrawal from Athabasca River

Note: 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. Actions already underway include reusing approximately 300,000m3 from the reverse osmosis units in our water treatment plant for units in the Syncrude Emissions Reduction Project. Completed in 2015, a new condensate stripper in our hydrogen plant is saving about 500,000 m3 per year.

Water Use Intensity

(Above) The Athabasca River valley.

Research Progresses on Treatment and Release

Syncrude does not presently 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. As we decrease fluid fine tailings volumes and expedite landscape restoration activities, 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 and develop appropriate 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.

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. Activities include water, biodiversity and ecosystem health monitoring. Details on these projects can be found on the Government of Alberta website.

Performance Data

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Fresh water withdrawal1 (million m3) 39.60 37.20 38.80 37.64 34.90
Fresh water use intensity (barrel water per barrel crude oil produced) 2.35 2.37 2.55 2.57 2.19
Fresh water use intensity (barrel water per barrel bitumen produced) 2.05 1.98 2.18 2.17 1.89
Water returned to the Athabasca River - treated sanitary (million m3) 0.31 0.27 0.30 0.22 0.16
Water returned to the Athabasca River - other (million m3) 4.8 5.9 6.5 7.9 4.7
Process water recycled (million m3) 242 259 218 236 241
Process water recycled (% total water used) 86 87 85 86 87
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 Athabasca River diversion for direct operations use only. In 2016, under regulatory approval, an additional 3.0 Mm3 of fresh water was diverted from Beaver Creek Reservoir for the Base Mine Lake tailings reclamation demonstration project. Also, an additional 0.88 Mm3 of basal groundwater was diverted for use in Aurora plant operations.