Water management

Supporting a sustainable water future

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Water management

As an integrated energy company, our business helps ensure the quality of life and energy future for Canadians.

Imperial recognizes the importance of water to local communities – to protect human health and the environment.

  • We are fortunate our operations are located in areas that have ample water to balance our operational needs with economic growth, social development and environmental protection, today and for the future.
  • We are committed to responsible development so future generations are not impacted by today’s decisions and actions.
  • We recognize and take these responsibilities very seriously to minimize impact on water in all aspects of our operations. We focus on freshwater conservation along with recycling and reuse opportunities, innovation, and efficient use of water through the design and operation of our facilities.

Imperial’s current operating assets are in areas of low to medium overall water risk. Even though all of Imperial’s operating sites have secure water licences and are not located in water-scarce areas, Imperial believes it’s important to monitor and manage water risks.

Risk assessments identify water-related aspects of activities, projects or producing assets. We follow detailed management systems, and strictly adhere to government regulations. All operating sites collect water data to facilitate benchmarking and stewardship, and to identify and evaluate continuous improvement opportunities.

For 2017, Imperial’s total freshwater consumption was 42.5 million cubic metres with a freshwater intensity of 0.99 cubic metre of water consumption per cubic metre of throughput or production. About 32.5 million cubic metres in upstream and about 10 million cubic metres in chemical and downstream were consumed with freshwater intensities of 1.56 and 0.45, respectively. Our downstream and chemical facilities have achieved strong utilization rates over the past five years with little change in water use. Over the past five years, more than 80 percent of water recovered from our oil sands production has been treated, recycled and re-used. This significantly reduces the need for freshwater withdrawals.

In the past 20 years, we’ve spent more than $2.1 billion in research and technology development. We’ve developed advanced oil recovery technologies that are more energy efficient and have lower water use intensity. In addition to in-house research, we partner with academic institutions, industry peers, and third-party companies to accelerate the pace of environmental performance improvement.

Our corporate environment policy and “Protect Tomorrow. Today” expectations are the foundation of our efforts, guided by a scientific understanding of the environmental impact of our operations. We recognize that business success depends on the economic, social and environmental health of the communities where we operate.

View our full water summary

Water risks

Across Canada, the relative availability or scarcity of water varies depending on location.

Broadly, Canada has seven percent of the world’s renewable water, making it one of the world’s waterwealthy nations.(2) According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Water Risk Filter, Canada has a water scarcity of two percent, and is ranked 147 in water scarcity out of 184 nations with one being the most water scarce. In comparison, the United States is ranked 91 while Australia is 88. That said, water is not evenly distributed throughout the country. Approximately 60 percent of Canada’s water flows northward, while 85 percent of the population lives within 300 km of the country’s southern border with the United States.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) developed and maintains the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas(3) (Aqueduct), a publicly available, global database and interactive tool that maps indicators of water-related risks, and allows for comparison across large geographies to identify regions that may require closer attention (Gassert et al, 2014).

According to WRI, most of Canada has an overall water risk of low to medium with pockets of medium to high risk in the southern prairies and high Arctic.

Information on future water availability is also forecast by Aqueduct for decade-scale planning.(4) Across Canada, the projected change in water stress in 2040 compared to historical conditions is generally expected to be near normal, except for a few isolated areas in the southern prairies where an increase of up to two times historical conditions is projected due to changes in water demand based on socioeconomic development (Luck et al, 2015).

Water use at Imperial

Imperial regularly reports water use information to regulatory agencies and trade associations, and includes information on water resource management on our website and in our Corporate Sustainability Summary. Imperial also reports water use metrics to Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), to Statistics Canada, and to the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA) through ExxonMobil. For 2017, our total freshwater consumption was 42.5 million cubic metres. Imperial’s downstream and chemical operations used just under 10 million cubic metres; the remaining 32.5 million cubic metres was used by upstream operations.

At Imperial’s downstream facilities, water usage varies due to changes in crude oil quality and refinery utilization rates. Water use includes steam production, removing salt from crude oil, making hydrogen, and as a fluid for cooling. The largest single use is for cooling hydrocarbon streams to safe temperatures. Only a portion of the water withdrawn is consumed as a chemical feedstock or lost to evaporation. The remainder of the water is returned safely back to the environment according to appropriate provincial approvals.

Our downstream and chemical facilities have achieved strong utilization rates over the past five years with little change in water use resulting in a relatively flat water use intensity.

In our upstream operations, Norman Wells, located in the Sahtu Region of the Northwest Territories, uses freshwater in a closed once-through cooling system and to maintain pressure in the oil reservoir, while our oil sands facilities’ water use in Alberta is primarily driven by bitumen extraction processes.

In closed cooling systems, water is kept completely separate from hydrocarbons in separate piping, much like the coolant in your car’s engine is kept completely separate from the fuel system. Norman Wells’ water usage was less than 0.04 million cubic metres in 2017. This was lower than normal due to a temporary shutdown of operations in response to a shutdown of Enbridge’s Line 21.

In oil sands mining, water use intensity depends on a number of factors including the project’s age, stage, production plans, ore quality and facility processes. The amount of water needed for in situ operations depends on extraction technology, reservoir quality, suitable and available water sources and facility age. Both oil sands mining and in situ operations also have freshwater needs for activities like cooling, dust suppression, fire protection, drilling through non-saline formations, potable requirements, and utility requirements.

Continuous improvement by Imperial at its Cold Lake in situ facilities located in Northern Alberta, has allowed for a 20 percent reduction in our water licence allocation from Cold Lake in 2017. This is a reduction of more than one million cubic metres of annual water allocation, or a daily equivalent of about 2,800 cubic metres.

Water use at Imperial’s Kearl oil sands mining operation, located in Alberta’s Athabasca region, fluctuates depending upon weather conditions and operational activities. For example, freshwater intensity increased in 2015 due to increased water storage at Kearl to support the full commissioning of expansion activities.

Our upstream facilities have seen an increase in water intensity since 2013 in response to the increased production from Kearl over the same time period. Over the past five years, more than 80 percent of water recovered from our oil sands production has been treated, recycled and re-used. This significantly reduces the need for freshwater withdrawals. We will continue to monitor and steward water use and intensity as part of annual environmental business plans, and support opportunities to reduce freshwater usage as appropriate.

Water strategy

We focus on freshwater conservation opportunities and the efficient use of water through the design, startup, operation and expansion of our facilities.

We follow detailed management systems, and strictly adhere to government regulations. We are dedicated to continuous improvement in the areas of water management.

We work to achieve our water management principles by:

  • Considering local needs and alternatives when sourcing water for our operations, including first identifying and then managing risks related to water availability and quality;
  • Preventing spills and leaks;
  • Minimizing the impact from water withdrawal, consumption, and discharges;
  • Using research and operational analyses to support the continuous improvement of water-related technologies, practices and performance in our industry; and
  • Collaborating with stakeholders to promote the long-term viability of source waters, watersheds and related ecosystems in areas where we operate.
Photo — Top: Muskeg Lake near Imperial's Kearl oil sands development was built to replace fish habitat that was disturbed by development. Bottom: Water management infrastructure at our Cold Lake operations.

Each of these actions contributes to aspects of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” as well as the Government of Canada’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) goal of “pristine lakes and rivers” through improved water quality, increased water-use efficiency, and the participation of local communities in improving water management.

As part of our water strategy, all operating sites collect information related to water resources, to understand their water footprint. This water data is used to facilitate benchmarking and stewardship, to prepare for risk assessment/management reviews, and to identify and evaluate continuous improvement opportunities.

Each of these actions contributes to aspects of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” as well as the Government of Canada’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) goal of “pristine lakes and rivers” through improved water quality, increased water-use efficiency, and the participation of local communities in improving water management.

As part of our water strategy, all operating sites collect information related to water resources, to understand their water footprint. This water data is used to facilitate benchmarking and stewardship, to prepare for risk assessment/management reviews, and to identify
and evaluate continuous improvement opportunities.

Key water-related metrics for Imperial are withdrawal, consumption, water use intensity and recycling. In addition to our water metrics, we also evaluate:

  • Water treatment and distribution technologies to increase efficiency and re-use opportunities, to allow use of lower-quality source water;
  • Seasonal adjustments in water withdrawals, discharges, distribution and/or storage;
  • Alternative water sources, including lower-quality sources or sources not competing directly with local and/or regional users; and,
  • Reduction or elimination of water use through technological, chemical, operational and/or other alternative methods.

Imperial’s management of water resources provides a consistent and effective methodology to identify, assess and manage water-related risks and opportunities. For example, understanding the local, regional and national perspectives that stakeholders have with regard to industry’s interactions with water resources is an important step in the management process. Imperial values these perspectives on volume, quality, and wastewater to help us understand the risk of using a particular source, as well as the intrinsic value local communities’ place on specific water resources. Ongoing dialogue with stakeholders and Indigenous communities is a critical part of the way we do business. For example, in 2017 we provided Indigenous community members information on Kearl’s environmental performance, along with a tour of Kearl to learn more about its operation, reclamation activities and how we work to manage the withdrawal of water during low flow periods.

Imperial, together with the other industry members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), has established industry freshwater use intensity targets using a 2012 baseline year for the oil sands: reduce freshwater use intensity by 50 percent by 2022 for in situ operations, while members with mining operations are committed collectively to reduce the net water use intensity from the Athabasca River and its tributaries by 30 percent by 2022. Our Kearl and Cold Lake operations are on target to support these goals.

Water strategy in action:

Water performance data

Water innovation

We developed innovative technologies that are more efficient and lower in water use intensity.

Imperial has invested for decades in science and technology – from unlocking new sources of energy in places previously thought inaccessible for development, international partnerships and co-operative ventures, to formulating fuels, lubricants and plastics that help us all do more with less. At every link in the energy chain, including water use, Imperial seeks to advance innovation and technology to deliver energy North Americans need. In the past 20 years, we’ve spent more than $2.1 billion in downstream and upstream research and technology development.

We continue to look for better ways to recover oil. Imperial has been enhancing existing recovery processes and developing new technologies to improve the energy efficiencies and environmental performance of the oil sands production. In the past, we exclusively used steam to recover bitumen at in situ oil sands operations. In recent years, we’ve developed advanced oil recovery technologies that are more energy efficient and have lower water use intensity.

In 2001, we invented Liquid Addition to Steam for Enhanced Recovery (LASER), with the objective of reducing water and GHG emissions intensity. LASER is generally implemented mid-life of a CSS installation’s lifecycle to enhance steam-only recovery. LASER thus allows additional bitumen recovery and higher production rates without incremental steam injection. LASER provides up to a 25 percent reduction in water use intensity compared to normal CSS production methods. Imperial is currently using LASER at our Cold Lake operations.

Cyclic solvent process (CSP) is a non-thermal bitumen recovery process that involves alternating cycles of liquid light hydrocarbon injection, followed by bitumen production. CSP technology has been developed through laboratory studies, simulation, field trials and demonstration pilots. The first commercial CSP pad is in the planning stage at our Cold Lake operations and has the potential to eliminate steam use for recovery at pads using CSP.

The solvent-assisted, steam-assisted gravity drainage (SA‑SAGD) technology injects light hydrocarbons underground along with steam. The light hydrocarbons reduce bitumen viscosity, thus reducing water use intensity relative to traditional SAGD. This technology was advanced through a research program including laboratory studies,simulation development, and a field pilot. Imperial expects to save about 25 percent in capital costs per barrel and to reduce GHG emissions intensity and water use intensity by up to 25 percent.

Enhanced bitumen recovery technology (EBRT) is another technology under development. EBRT increases the concentration of light hydrocarbons in the steam, and could provide a 90 percent reduction in water use relative to traditional SAGD technology. We are currently advancing a field pilot to demonstrate the process and to validate it for commercial use.

In addition to in-house research, we partner with academic institutions, industry peers, and third-party companies to accelerate the pace of environmental performance improvement in Canada. Imperial is a founding member of COSIA, an alliance of oil sands producers focused on improving environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands through collaborative action and innovation. COSIA’s Water Environment Priority Area (EPA) looks for innovative and sustainable water solutions for oil sands mining and in situ operations with over 200 technologies contributed, and active projects in 2017 valued at over $200 million. The Water EPA has identified issues facing the industry and is working to progress opportunities in areas like improved use and management of all water resources – fresh, saline and recycled.

We continue to work to implement new technologies that require less water for our operations, collaborate with industry to reduce implications for local water resources, and we are engaged in multi-stakeholder groups to address issues in these areas.

Governance

At Imperial we are committed to operating in an environmentally responsible manner everywhere we do business.

Our corporate environment policy and “Protect Tomorrow. Today” expectations are the foundation of our efforts, guided by a scientific understanding of the environmental impact of our operations. We recognize that business success depends on the economic,
social and environmental health of the communities where we operate.

Imperial’s operations integrity management system (OIMS) has comprehensive environmental expectations and requirements to identify and manage safety, security, health, and environmental risks. OIMS is ISO 14001 equivalent;(6) and provides a systematic, structured and disciplined approach to manage those risks holding Imperial’s management accountable across business lines, facilities and projects.

In addition to OIMS, Imperial has an issue management process designed for timely issue identification, prioritization and management. Stewardship is a key step within the process, where the status of the issue is communicated to management.

Water use is one of the key issues stewarded by the Issue Management Process. Water issue updates are communicated annually to the Management Committee, business planners and their environmental representatives, to ensure potential risks and key public policy initiatives
are captured in the company’s business plans and regulatory compliance plans.

Imperial’s Board of Directors has a public policy and corporate responsibility committee whose responsibilities include monitoring trends and reviewing current and emerging public policy issues in matters of the environment, health and safety. Corporate water use metrics are shared with the board on an annual basis. The committee’s responsibilities also include reviewing the impact of proposed legislation on the operations of the corporation in matters of the environment, health and safety and to advise the directors and management as to the appropriate corporate response. Based on the committee’s review and monitoring activity, the committee may recommend desirable policies and actions to the directors and management.

Learn more about governance at Imperial

Disclosure, definitions, references and footnotes

Please view the full water management summary to view all disclosure, definitions, references and footnotes.

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