Water Management

Performance Overview

  • 86 percent of water used in 2012 was from recycled sources
  • No reportable spills to local water bodies
  • Water treatment research continues; coke byproduct filters tailings water and removes naphthenic acids
  • University research chair established to explore additional methods of treating tailings water

Our Commitment

Water is essential to Syncrude's operation and plays a key role in our production processes. We recognize that water is a limited resource that must be managed carefully. Our commitment is to take prudent steps to manage and conserve the water we use and to protect the health of regional water bodies, including groundwater.

Syncrude's water management practices are based on the objectives of minimizing the withdrawal of fresh water from the Athabasca River, maximizing reuse of process-affected water, and responsibly managing its storage.

Using Water Wisely

The Athabasca River is our main source of fresh water. It provides about 15 percent of our total water needs. Water imported from this river is used to cool process water, generate steam and as potable water. The remaining water used – approximately 85 percent – is recycled from our settling basins, also known as tailings ponds, and used in bitumen extraction processes. In 2012, 86 percent of the water used was recycled from these sources.

Water use increased in 2012 due partially to requirements for the fen reclamation research area and the Base Mine Lake project. We estimate our raw water intake will increase by between five to 10 million cubic metres over the next five years to support this project. This water will be sourced from Beaver Creek Reservoir. 

Our water license, granted to Syncrude in the 1970s, permits us to withdraw 61.7 million cubic metres of fresh water annually. In 34 years of operation, we have always operated well within these limits and will continue to do so. Currently, we withdraw about 0.2 percent of the river's average annual flow or the equivalent of around 18 hours of total yearly flow.

We are committed to water conservation and have historically demonstrated continuous improvement. In fact, we have reduced the water intensity of our processes by about 60 percent from levels in the early 1980s. Today, we require about two cubic metres of fresh water to produce a cubic metre of crude oil.

Syncrude has been in operation for over three decades. Throughout those years, many considerable gains were made in water conservation. Now, work is underway to define a water strategy going forward. This will examine how we can continue to make improvements in our processes over the short-term while engaging our research department towards developing new technologies that will further minimize our import of fresh water in the future.

For example, we plan to recover water from reverse osmosis units for use in our emissions reduction project. We estimate this will offset about two million cubic metres of water that would have been otherwise withdrawn from the Athabasca River.

Process Water Recycled

Releases to the Environment

Alberta Environment prohibits the release of any water that does not meet quality regulations. Syncrude does not discharge process-affected water, waste water or any industrial run-off into local water bodies. The only discharges to the Athabasca River are treated sanitary sewage similar to that discharged by municipalities, diverted clean surface water and basal water from the Aurora Mine via Stanley Creek, and clean surface water from a gravel pit. All precipitation runoff and seepage from our tailings settling basins are collected in ditches or small ponds and pumped back into the settling basin.

During the reporting period, there were no spills to local water bodies. 

Advances in Tailings Water Treatment

We recognize that, by not releasing water, we are creating an increasing storage challenge that is not acceptable to our stakeholders. As well, from a reclamation perspective, it is necessary to build a final landscape with a hydrology that connects seamlessly to the surrounding environment. Towards this, we have conducted research on tailings water treatment using coke, a byproduct of our process. The treatment is similar to using a home water filter. The coke, which is almost pure carbon, acts as a filter that captures contaminants and, most importantly, naphthenic acids. Bench-scale research shows the treated water is able to support aquatic life. We are running a pilot-scale plant which will answer further technical questions and provide the design requirements for possible commercial-scale implementation.

tailings water treatment

A research project has shown that tailings water can be treated with coke, a byproduct of our process which is almost pure carbon. The treatment is similar to using a home water filter. Pictured here, tailings water before (left) and after (right) coke filtration. 

Our Support for a World-Class Regional Water Monitoring System

In 2010, the Royal Society of Canada commissioned an Expert Panel of Canadian Scientists to review and assess evidence relating to several perceived environmental impacts of the oil sands, including regional water supply. According to their assessment, current evidence does not suggest a threat to the viability of the regional aquatic ecosystem. However, stakeholders remain concerned about downstream impacts.

To address ongoing concerns, a government-sponsored contaminant load study is currently underway that is examining how air particulates, land disturbance and drainage may affect water quality. Also, in early 2012, the Alberta and Canadian governments announced a joint implementation plan for integrated environmental monitoring in the oil sands region. The plan builds on monitoring already in place and outlines a phased, adaptive implementation approach to monitoring over the next three years. Syncrude supports a credible, transparent and science-based approach that can guide us effectively on responsible water management in the future.

Water Use

Unit 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Imported from Athabasca River
million m3 41.2 37.5 34.1 38.5 39.6
Imported from Athabasca River
m3/m3 production 2.45 2.31 1.97 2.28 2.35
Water returned to the Athabasca River - treated sanitary
thousand m3 233 270 320 321 312
Water returned to the Athabasca River - other (Aurora diversion)
thousands m3 2.5 4.9 10.5 7.9 4.8
Process water recycled
millions m3 268 258 278 270 242
Process water recycled
% of total water used 87 87 89 88 86
Water discharge quality exceedances (treated sanitary)
# of incidents 0 0 0 0 0
Water discharge quality exceedances (industrial process)
# of incidents 0 0 0 0 0
Reportable spills to natural water bodies
m3 0 0 0 0 0