Managing water use

Stuart Lunn

A PhD graduate in civil engineering, Stuart Lunn is Imperial's top specialist on water issues in the exploration and development business. Whether reviewing water licences or providing advice on productivity improvements or representing industry in multi-stakeholder forums, Stuart juggles a range of water management-related responsibilities.

Q&A with Stuart Lunn

Why is water management a key focus for the company?
Water is key to everything -- the environment, the economy and people's health. Also, many of our technologies at Imperial are water-based. Whether it's water floods to develop mature conventional fields or steam to recover bitumen at Cold Lake or water-based extraction for the Kearl oil sands mining project, now under construction, most of our oil recovery operations require water.

What is Imperial's record in managing water?
It's very strong. Over the last several decades, we've improved fresh water use efficiency in the in situ thermal business at Cold Lake and in the conventional oil business. Today more than 80 percent of the water used at Cold Lake comes from recycling water produced during oil recovery, and, wherever possible, the operation uses saline water instead of fresh water. In our conventional business, recycling of produced water is also increasing.

What have been some recent achievements in water use?
At Cold Lake, we've continued to maintain low levels in water intensity – the amount of water that is needed to produce a barrel of oil. Today our Cold Lake operation uses about one half a cubic metre of fresh water to make a cubic metre of oil. This is 88-percent less fresh water per unit of production than in the mid-1970s.

In our conventional business, where there's been declining oil production, we've voluntarily reviewed our water licences for the Cynthia and Wizard Lake oilfields, and have returned a significant volume of unneeded water allocation to the Alberta government.

What is the company doing to further improve performance?
At Cold Lake, newer facilities, such as the Mahkeses plant and the proposed Nabiye plant, are designed with advanced technologies to run with little fresh water. In 2009, we applied for renewal of the Cold Lake Water Act License, which includes a commitment to continue to reduce fresh water use. Conservation initiatives are underway that, if successful, will reduce fresh water use at Cold Lake by up to 30 percent from current uses.

What do you see as key water issues facing the company?
Water availability and quality are of increasing concern for many Canadians. And recently there has been a lot of public attention on water use in the oil sands sector and potential environmental implications.

How is the company responding?
We've taken a lead role in working with other oil sands mining companies in the Fort McMurray area to find solutions to better manage or reduce water requirements from the Athabasca River for oil sands projects during low flow periods, including increased storage facilities. A key component of our Kearl oil sands project will be the use of water storage to enable reduced water withdrawal from the river during winter months, when water flow is lower.
We're supporting the long-term development of technologies to reduce water use for oil sands development, and we're also involved in multi-stakeholder forums that are looking at different options to manage water use to find the best balance between social, environmental and economic interests..

What kind of approach does Imperial bring to these forums?
We bring science-based information to the table to suggest solutions and to ensure that regulators and members of the public understand what's occurring in the different environments where we operate.

What is most satisfying about your role?
I have a passion for the environment and, like many Canadians, I have a strong interest in water quality and water management. I also enjoy applying new knowledge to solve problems. So, I'm fortunate to be in a job that allows me to pursue these different interests and help protect this important resource.