Water is an essential resource for society and the environment, and we recognize the role Imperial plays in preserving water quality and the supply of freshwater where we operate.
We work to carefully manage water we use in our operations, including using freshwater for production, wastewater treatment and discharge, and produced water recycled for industrial use to conserve freshwater consumption. At the board level, the Safety and Sustainability Committee is responsible for risk oversight related to environmental sustainability priorities including water conservation and use.
Canada is among the world’s water-wealthy nations, and according to the World Resources Institute, most of Canada has an overall water risk of low to medium. 8 The projected change in water stress is expected to be near normal, except for a few isolated areas. 9 Fortunately, Imperial’s operations are located in areas with ample water to balance our operational needs with economic development, social development and environmental protection, today and for the future.
Our operations continue to look at new ways to manage risks related to water use and discharge. At Kearl, for example, we are moving forward with plans to install smaller water pumps that allow for lower water withdrawal rates from the Athabasca River.
In addition to active collaboration through the Pathways Alliance, we also work with researchers to advance water research. We are collaborating with Athabasca University, University of Waterloo, University of Calgary, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and Ducks Unlimited to study impacts of linear disturbance such as road corridors on wetlands associated with project development. Linear disturbances can impact wetlands by altering the flow of water through the wetland or by changing water levels of the wetland. Researchers are working to understand how changes in water levels may impact how vegetation uses and releases carbon dioxide.
We are also continuing to test the effectiveness of using constructed wetlands as a cost-effective, nature-based solution to clean oil sands mine water. Wetlands reduce concentrations of organic compounds by natural processes where they are absorbed by plants or degraded by microbes. Our scientists and research partners continue to study the Kearl constructed treatment wetland to understand these processes and how we can improve their efficiency.
Taking action to address water incidents at Kearl
Imperial was issued an Environmental Protection Order by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) in March 2023 in response to two industrial water incidents that occurred at our Kearl oil sands mine. Imperial has been taking actions to address these issues.
In May 2022, we discovered discoloured water near our lease boundary and notified both the Alberta Energy Regulator and local Indigenous communities. Our preliminary investigation involved months of technical studies and determined this discoloured surface water was made up of natural groundwater and precipitation, with some water from our operations.
The second event, which occurred in February 2023, was an overflow from a drainage pond at Kearl, resulting in the release of approximately 5,300 cubic meters of water. This pond collects water from surface water drainage systems and the seepage interception system. Local Indigenous communities and the Alberta Energy Regulator were informed of this release once it was detected. All impacted snow and ice in the area was removed and Imperial continues to work with the AER on cleanup certification. The company is implementing mitigation measures at site in an effort to prevent an event like this from happening again.
With both incidents, to date there is no indication of adverse impacts to fish populations in nearby river systems, or risks to drinking water for local communities.
We recognize our communication with Indigenous communities did not meet expectations and we are working to rebuild trust and enhance our communications. Since February 2023, we have had over 500 engagements with local Indigenous communities, including site tours, independent testing and community meetings. We shared our mitigation and monitoring plans and invited communities to conduct independent reviews of our technical work. In addition, we sought community expertise to support Imperial in our monitoring, clean‑up and mitigation work through Indigenous-owned companies.
Imperial also created a dedicated multi-disciplinary team to bring together resources from across the company, as well as third-party experts, to apply lessons learned from these experiences at all our assets. The team provides updates directly to Imperial’s management committee and at the board level, the Safety and Sustainability Committee oversees policies and practices that manage environment, health, safety and security risk. Imperial’s board of directors visited the Kearl site in September 2023 to review the remediation activities.For more detailed information on these incidents and our response to them, visit the Kearl pages.
Water metrics and performance
At Kearl, we maintained our almost 40 per cent decrease in freshwater use since 2020. These reductions were the result of increased utilization of recycled process water and usage of precipitation stored on-site from 2020. Our utilization of process recycled water remained high at 86 per cent.
At Cold Lake our freshwater use was essentially flat, maintaining the almost 30 per cent reduction we saw in 2021 from 2020 due to changes we made to our water reuse treatment system. By sustaining the increase in the amount of produced water we can treat and then reuse we continue to use less freshwater in our operations.
At our downstream facilities, the largest single use of water 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 rest, over 85 per cent, is returned safely back to the environment in accordance with appropriate provincial approvals.
In 2022 freshwater consumption at our downstream facilities was flat. Our focus remains on the quality of the water we release and on continued monitoring of water availability in the region.
Upstream water metrics
Upstream fresh water intensity
Downstream and chemical water metrics
Downstream and chemical fresh water intensity
1WWF Water Risk Filter: http//waterriskfilter.panda.ca
3Luck, M., M. Landis, F. Gassert. 2015. “Aqueduct Water Stress Projections: Decadal Projections of Water Supply and Demand Using CMIP5 GCMs.” Technical Note. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute. Available online at https://www.wri.org/ research/aqueduct-water-stress-projections-decadal-projections-water-supply-and-demand-using-cmip5
4Freshwater use will be offset where it is used for steam production, at many fields in Cold Lake, recycled produced water is used for steam injection.
Sustainability reporting and metrics