Suncor’s environmental performance has been called into question recently by some critics of oil sands development. You may have come across a spoof website, social media and news release mocking our What Yes Can Do campaign. The spoof effort makes misleading and untrue statements about our company, including assertions about our impact on the Athabasca River.
This being the case, we offer five fact-based things you need to know about Suncor’s use of water from the Athabasca River (which is located near our oil sands mining operations).
1. We’re allowed to take water from the Athabasca River.
We are licensed by the Alberta government to withdraw nearly 60 million cubic metres of water each year for use in our operations. That volume is 0.3 per cent of the annual river flow. We continue to operate well below our water license even as bitumen production levels increase. Of all major rivers in Alberta, the Athabasca River already has one of the lowest allocations, or licensed withdrawals levels – just 4.3 per cent. By comparison, 28 per cent of the North Saskatchewan River’s flow is allocated, while more than 66 per cent of both the Oldman and the Bow Rivers are licensed for withdrawal.
2. We have reduced water withdrawals.
Through better water reuse in our operations, Suncor has reduced our gross water withdrawal from the Athabasca River by approximately 45 per cent since 2007, when 43.7 million cubic metres of fresh water was withdrawn. Our total water withdrawal is now below 1998 levels, even though production has more than tripled since that time.
3. We work with others to better understand and protect the Athabasca River.
First Nations, environmental groups and other stakeholders are concerned about the amount of water oil sands producers are allowed to withdraw from the Athabasca River and are discussing the issue with industry and government. To address stakeholder concerns, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) released the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) Surface Water Quantity Framework in late 2013. We work with governments, as well as environmental and Aboriginal groups, to learn more about the Athabasca River system.
4. We can reduce water withdrawals but not eliminate them entirely.
The LARP Surface Water Quantity Framework, slated to go into effect in late 2014 or 2015, includes an ecosystem base flow (EBF) defining low rates at which most water withdrawals from the Athabasca River would cease if there’s significant risk of harm to the river biodiversity. It recommends the EBF for the river be set at 87 cubic metres per second. At that flow, most current and future oil sands mining operators would stop taking river water and use stored water instead. Suncor and Syncrude – Canada’s two oldest operators - are exceptions, due to legacy plant designs unable to store the water needed to completely cease water withdrawals.
Our mining operations, as well as Syncrude’s, has no separate on-site fresh water storage facilities and we can’t operate without at least some fresh water, especially in the winter. We have agreed, however, to reduce our withdrawal rate by 50 per cent at the prescribed base flow rate and are evaluating additional measures to reduce withdrawals even further. We understand water is a precious resource and the Athabasca is ecologically significant and rich in natural resources. We are working diligently to reduce our impact on the river.
5. Adding water storage facilities would result in significant land disturbance.
Some stakeholders have suggested that Suncor build water storage facilities at our operations so we can eliminate the need for withdrawals during low flow. (On-site water storage facilities are part of new oil sands mine licenses, as well as planned ones.) However, building water storage facilities now would result in sizable land disturbance beyond our existing mining footprint. We believe this would have a negative impact on the environment, especially given the rare occurrence of the base flow rates recommended by the LARP Surface Water Quantity Framework.