Conserving water makes sense – and it's apparent in many households.
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Water meters, rain barrels and toilet leak detection are just some commonplace measures to conserve and manage water use in the modern home.
Industry is also focused on minimizing water use. Companies in various sectors make substantial investments to reduce fresh water inputs to their production processes, and to recover and reuse as much water as possible from their waste outputs.
The oil sands industry is no different. One reason is that water is absolutely critical to oil sands operations, and we use a lot of it: in the extraction process for mining operations and as high-pressure steam for in situ operations.
Mining requires, on average, 3.1 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced while in situ operations, on average, require 0.4 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen produced, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Oil sands companies have made real strides in improving water management in recent years. Oil sands projects currently recycle 80-95% of water used, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator. And at Suncor, we’ve reduced our gross fresh water withdrawal from the Athabasca River by 52% since 2004.
In 2013, Suncor implemented an industry-leading process to send our tailings water from our oil sands tailings ponds to be used as the main source of ‘makeup water’ for our Firebag in situ site.
In situ projects use water to create high-pressure steam. Most of the steam injected into the reservoir is recovered and recycled; however, anywhere from 3 to 10 % is lost in the process. 'Makeup water' is used to replenish this shortfall.
Through this initiative, Suncor has demonstrated that reusing water from the end of one project’s cycle to be used in another part of its business improves Suncor’s water management practices over a larger geographical area and can reduce overall regional fresh water use. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) recognized this achievement by honouring this project in the recent 2014 CAPP Responsible Canadian Energy Awards.
For Suncor, this approach has several benefits:
- It reduces regional water demand by optimizing water usage between operations over a larger geography.
- It leverages existing infrastructure by using an existing pipeline which means less construction and less capital investment.
- It reduces operating costs because it’s more economical to use tailings water than the brackish water we used to use, which although non-potable, still had to be treated due to the high concentration of minerals that were more likely to scale in the pipes.
- It raises the bar for the industry because it establishes an industry precedent and an established process to share tailings water between oil sands operators.
While industrial efforts involve different measures than those used at home, the end goal is the same: conserve water through reuse and recycling. After all, water is an essential part of our ecosystem and it needs to be carefully managed.