Water is an essential resource for society and our environment and we recognize the role Imperial plays in preserving water quality and the supply of freshwater where we operate. Across our assets, we work to minimize impacts from water withdrawal, consumption and discharges.
In 2021, we initiated efforts to better map freshwater use at Cold Lake and evaluate opportunities to further optimize our usage. And at Kearl, to ensure we are only taking what we need, we are evaluating the use of smaller pumps that allow for lower water withdrawal rates in an effort to reduce the amount of freshwater pulled from the Athabasca River.
Imperial is committed to responsible water use. As part of our water management strategy, we identify and manage risks related to water availability. Canada is among the world’s water-wealthy nations1, with about seven per cent of the world’s renewable water and, according to the World Resources Institute, most of Canada has an overall water risk of low to medium2. The projected change in water stress is expected to be near normal, except for a few isolated areas3.
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. To ensure continuous evaluation of water stress and risk, Imperial is piloting a screening tool developed with ExxonMobil, to make it easier to evaluate water scarcity and identify and assess water related risk in the earliest stages of project design, including how use of water resources in our operations might affect water quantity and quality in areas where we operate.
Innovation in water management
Water and energy are interrelated and we continue to develop innovative technologies that are more energy efficient and lower in water use intensity. As we accelerate the deployment of solvent technologies at Cold Lake to support lower-carbon intensity production, we also anticipate these technologies will result in less water use4. Similarly, we expect water use at Kearl to decrease as we make progress towards our GHGi targets.
We are also testing the effectiveness of wetlands as a cost-effective, natural solution to clean oil sands mine water. Imperial scientists are collaborating with a number of Canadian universities and research organizations to evaluate the Kearl constructed treatment wetland – a first of its kind in the oil sands.
Preliminary results look promising: we’ve been able to demonstrate that wetland systems are capable of efficiently filtering and removing large portions of potential constituents of concern from oil sands mine waters. Once this pilot is complete and the technology is proven, it will be another tool that can be used for integrated water management at Kearl. We continue to share our research and findings with our fellow Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) members so they can apply this new approach at their assets.
Water metrics and performance
In 2021, Kearl’s freshwater use decreased by almost 40 per cent compared to 2020 in part due to our increased utilization of recycled process water, up from 77 per cent in 2020 to 86 per cent in 2021. We also reduced our withdrawal from the Athabasca River by approximately 40 per cent relative to 2020 by using excess water inventory we had stored on-site.
Cold Lake also saw a reduction in freshwater use in 2021, by almost 30 per cent over 2020 levels. A large portion of this reduction can be attributed to changes we made in late 2020 to our water reuse treatment system. By optimizing our process, adopting automated control of additives and a new digital proactive surveillance system, we were able to increase the amount of produced water we could treat and then reuse, ultimately reducing our freshwater needs.
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.
As our downstream and chemical facilities continue to have strong utilization rates, our focus at these operations is on the quality of the water we release and on continued monitoring of water availability in the region.
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.