ExxonMobil's role in addressing the water challenge

We recognize the importance of water and our responsibility to local communities and the environment. As such, we focus our efforts on preventing adverse impacts to water resources and prudently managing the water we do use.

Article Sept. 6, 2018

In this article

ExxonMobil's role in addressing the water challenge

Water framework

Energy is more than a commodity: It is an enabler of progress. Affordable and reliable energy raises living standards, creates jobs, and contributes to opportunities for better health, education and social welfare. Sustaining such progress by meeting the world’s growing demand for energy is a tremendous challenge.

As part of a comprehensive risk-management approach, we are committed to managing the interaction of our activities with water in order to:

  • Protect human health and the environment
  • Consider local water needs when addressing operational requirements
  • Continuously improve capabilities and performance
  • Engage stakeholders in development of sustainable water solutions

Because water challenges are most effectively addressed with local solutions, we’ll include examples that highlight global principles alongside solutions appropriate to local, site-specific operational conditions.

Protect human health and environment

ExxonMobil protects human health and the environment by preventing spills and leaks and minimizing the impact from water withdrawal, consumption and discharges.

We use a globally consistent management system called the Operations Integrity Management System to ensure this tenet. The 11 elements of this management system provide a systematic, structured and disciplined approach to manage environmental and socioeconomic risk, measure progress and track accountability across business lines, facilities and projects. Environmental business planning is integrated into the full lifecycle of our operations, from initial impact assessments to facility design and construction, through startup and operations to late life and abandonment.

Designing to mitigate water impacts

ExxonMobil manages the potential adverse impact of water discharges using effective treatment systems incorporated into facility design and operations.

For example, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, refinery has recently put in place an advanced biological wastewater treatment facility that reduces total nitrogen discharges by 500 tons per year. While the refinery is a relatively small contributor to overall nitrate discharge in the Mississippi River basin, this voluntary reduction will have direct environmental benefits on the Gulf of Mexico, where high levels of nitrate discharges over several years have created a dead zone, or area of low oxygen.

ExxonMobil BRRF aerial, loading dock

Spills prevention

ExxonMobil employs a rigorous management approach to drive spills and leaks with significant impact to zero. Initiatives include:

  • Development of a best practice guide credited with reducing spills by more than 40% in 4 years
  • A marine fleet that has been recognized internationally as a leader in marine vessel spill prevention
  • Comprehensive integrity-management programs that oversee the transportation of millions of barrels of petroleum and chemical products
  • Emergency drills ranging from “desktop” exercises to full-scale field drills
  • Development of a $1 billion rapid-response offshore oil spill containment system for the Gulf of Mexico
  • Collaborating with industry groups to share environmental protection expertise and incorporating these lessons into industry-wide best practices

At ExxonMobil refineries, we recently enhanced an existing human factors approach to reinforce the zero-spill mindset among employees. Specialists developed a best practice guide that outlines 17 high-risk elements and corresponding procedures designed to reduce the likelihood of a spill caused by human error. This guide is credited with reducing such spills by more than 40 percent in its first four years.

Marine transportation of crude oil and refined products is another area where a continuous-improvement mindset has achieved results. ExxonMobil’s marine fleet, representing several hundred owned or leased vessels in daily service, has been recognized internationally as a leader in marine vessel spill prevention.

ExxonMobil uses comprehensive integrity-management programs to oversee the transportation of millions of barrels of petroleum and chemical products over thousands of miles of pipeline around the world. For example, our pipeline affiliate in the U.S. regularly tests its pipelines to detect corrosion and other integrity concerns and uses skilled personnel in ground and air patrols, state-of-the-art systems, alarms and other techniques to continuously control and monitor pipeline routes.

In addition to prevention, we focus on maintaining a state of readiness to quickly and effectively respond to incidents resulting from our operations. To ensure that a response to an incident will be coordinated and effective, each site conducts emergency drills in accordance with regulatory requirements or management guidelines, ranging from “desktop” exercises to full-scale field drills. Annually, we conduct comprehensive multiday drills at sites around the world, involving emergency response teams and hundreds of employees, contractors and specialists. Participants run through realistic scenarios and interact with local authorities and agencies.

Response preparedness often requires collaboration across our industry. For example, ExxonMobil has partnered with several companies to form the nonprofit Marine Well Containment Co. to develop a rapid-response offshore oil spill containment system for the Gulf of Mexico. The system, representing a more than $1 billion combined commitment, provides pre-engineered, constructed and tested containment technology and equipment deployable within 24 hours of a spill in the Gulf.

Another example of collaboration with industry groups to share environmental protection expertise is the OGP-IPIECA joint project on oil and chemical spills, of which ExxonMobil is a founding member. In cooperation with the American Petroleum Institute and others, this multiyear project is developing a broad array of guidelines and recommended practices, scientific studies, approval protocols and other supporting documents that address 19 areas for improving oil spill response capabilities as an industry. The Marcellus Shale Coalition is another example where ExxonMobil is contributing its global- and region-specific drilling experience to a joint-industry effort to develop best-practice guidelines on well construction, site reclamation, air quality and water management.

ExxonMobil is also a partner in the Subsea Well Response Project, an initiative to design and build subsea capping and dispersant application equipment for international use, excluding the U.S. and Arctic, and to base the equipment in storage locations in northern Europe, South America, Africa and the Asia-Pacific. The project is one outcome of a joint-industry effort to broadly incorporate lessons from recent incidents and to improve future response capabilities and practices.

Reduce spills through best practices

XTO, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil since 2010, reduced its total volume* spilled by 58 percent in its first year of implementing OIMS and incorporating ExxonMobil's best practices in environmental management.

*aggregate of hydrocarbon, chemical and drilling fluid spills greater than one barrel

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railcar loading in baton rouge
Our spill performance

ExxonMobil discloses its spill performance each year, among other environmental performance indicators, in the Sustainability Report.

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Chemical plant worker inspecting bottle

Consider local water needs

ExxonMobil considers local needs and alternatives when sourcing water for our operations, including first identifying and then managing risks related to water availability and quality.

ExxonMobil has been active in collaborative industry initiatives to develop a suite of standard tools for systematic water-resource management. The IPIECA Global Water Tool for Oil and Gas is a version of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Global Water Tool customized for oil and gas companies. The tool helps companies map water use and assess risks in each part of the value chain at a regional level. ExxonMobil performs this screening exercise each year after the WBCSD updates the global water tool with new data. We report the number of facilities located in areas with some degree of water stress or scarcity in our annual Corporate Citizenship Report.

We develop and implement local water management programs in locations where we identify potential water-related risks. In some cases, this entails a review of freshwater consumption rates to identify improvement opportunities. A more focused tool is sometimes used to identify and rank risks associated with the availability and reliability of local water sources and wastewater discharge locations. ExxonMobil worked with IPIECA and the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) to develop such a tool for the oil and gas industry to complement the IPIECA Global Water Tool.

Our fresh water consumption

ExxonMobil discloses its fresh water consumption trends, among other environmental performance indicators, in the Sustainability Report.

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Waterfall in Papa New Guinea

Replace, reduce, reuse and recycle

Our operations use alternative water sources where appropriate and seek opportunities to reduce, reuse and recycle water, considering potential trade-offs such as waste, energy and cost.

We consider multiple factors in determining the right approach for a given process or site, including local water availability, quality and environmental impact. We assess actual costs, as well as potential trade-offs, such as varying operational efficiencies, increased energy use or more concentrated waste streams. Together, these factors constitute an implicit value of water, which will vary by site due to local needs.

Global average freshwater consumption at ExxonMobil refineries is at the low end of the range of published industry estimates.1 Water is a key consideration in Alberta, Canada, oil sands development. We designed the Kearl oil sands operation to run on stored water during the low-flow winter months in order to reduce withdrawals from the Athabasca River during this period. In our heavy oil operations at Cold Lake, Canada, we employ a variety of water-use reduction measures, and about 90 percent of water used on-site is non-potable water that comes to the surface along with bitumen during production.

Recycling produced water for hydraulic fracturing is a technique we increasingly use in our operations, including the Fayetteville and Marcellus Shale gas plays in the U.S. When using fresh water, we lay pipelines where feasible, reducing the need for storage pits and truck transport. After fracturing operations are completed, we appropriately treat or dispose of remaining by-products in compliance with applicable local, state and federal regulations.

Global average freshwater consumption at ExxonMobil refineries is at the low end of the range of published industry estimates.

Integrate ecosystem and societal considerations

ExxonMobil integrates current and future water-related ecosystem and societal considerations with broader environmental and business-planning efforts.

Protecting existing biodiversity and ecosystems is a key risk-management focus area for ExxonMobil. For example, at the Kearl oil sands project, Imperial Oil has built the first of three artificial lakes to replace areas used by oil sands development. These lakes, which will eventually connect to the existing Kearl Lake, will be deep enough to allow fish to survive winters in them, something that isn’t always possible in Kearl Lake itself. Indigenous First Nations in the region advised on the lake’s construction, and they also provided guidance on which species of fish to stock in the lakes.

Artificial lakes graphic

Continuously improve capabilities and performance

ExxonMobil uses research and operational analyses to support the continuous improvement of water-related technologies, practices and performance in our industry.

Research

We have invested approximately $8 billion in research and development during the past 10 years, and almost $2 billion on technologies related to safety and the environment. We conduct cutting-edge research and development through in-house efforts and partnerships with other industries, and by funding academic and other nongovernmental research projects. Here are some examples related to water:

  • Lifecycle assessments compare a product or technology with alternatives to identify environmental benefits and trade-offs among several categories, including water. ExxonMobil is working to extend the science behind life cycle assessments by collaborating with leading academics and universities. ExxonMobil’s researchers have published their findings in peer-reviewed journals on topics such as algae biofuel technology options and shale gas production, including their impacts on water.
  • ExxonMobil is involved in collaborative research projects including major joint industry initiatives regarding the environmental effects of underwater sounds and Arctic oil spill prevention and response. 
  • Imperial Oil, along with 11 other major operators, created the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) in 2012. Currently, 13 companies, including Imperial, participate in COSIA. It was created to develop and share technologies that improve environmental performance in the Canadian oil sands sector. Water is one of the priority areas for COSIA.
Workers at our Kearl development

Science-based approach to improvement

ExxonMobil applies a science-based approach to performance improvement, applying measurement, data collection and analysis to drive new insights to potential improvements, technology needs and risk management opportunities.

Assessment and improvement are integral to our management and planning systems. True to the adage “what gets measured gets managed,” these steps are underpinned by data. ExxonMobil’s environmental data management system facilitates the collection of site-level data, including water, for analysis of global environmental performance.

Research also informs the process and drives innovation. In the 1970s Imperial Oil began researching the reuse of produced water to generate steam in its Cold Lake operations; this practice, plus the use of alternative saline groundwater sources, has resulted in a reduction of fresh water use per unit of production by 90 percent since 1985.

Environmental management

ExxonMobil discloses its expenditures on environmental protection, among other performance indicators, in the Sustainability Report.

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forest

Engage stakeholders in the development of sustainable water solutions

ExxonMobil collaborates with stakeholders to promote the long-term viability of source waters, watersheds and related ecosystems in areas where we operate.

For example, in October 2012, Qatar University and ExxonMobil entered into a partnership to research industrial wastewater reuse technologies. In particular, researchers are studying phytoremediation, a process that uses select native plants to clean water in an engineered wetlands system. Treated wastewater can then be reused in nonpotable applications, such as park or green-space irrigation.

The nonprofit Wildlife Habitat Council works with corporations to create wildlife habitats on their properties and conduct conservation education programs that involve employees and the local community. ExxonMobil has received the Council’s Wildlife at Work certification for several sites. These include:

  • Wetlands and migratory waterfowl habitats in Louisiana. At Fifi Island, we worked with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to build oyster reefs that help stabilize the eroding coastline.
  • A spawning pond for Colorado River cutthroat trout, developed more than a decade ago by employees at a facility near LaBarge, Wyoming. They have continued to maintain it in cooperation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Our protected wildlife habitat

ExxonMobil discloses the number of hectares of protected wildlife habitat, among other environmental performance indicators, in the Sustainability Report.

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deer in the forest

ExxonMobil is actively involved in numerous global, regional and local groups seeking to enhance the environment. Our Baton Rouge refinery has been an active member of a joint industry-government working group on nitrates for more than a decade. It has received awards from the Louisiana governor and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in recognition of its voluntary efforts to reduce nitrate discharges.

Community engagement

We seek to understand and respond to business-related water concerns and expectations of local communities.

Although the technique of hydraulic fracturing is not new to the oil and gas industry, the recent rapid expansion of shale oil and gas development into new communities means that the industry must answer important questions about its environmental impacts. To build community trust, ExxonMobil supports the voluntary disclosure of the ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing fluids, and our disclosures appear on the publicly accessible websites http://fracfocus.org/ (U.S.), http://www.fracfocus.ca/ (British Columbia and Alberta), and http://www.ngsfacts.org/ (Europe).

We seek innovative solutions for addressing wastewater issues throughout our operations.

Water concerns peak during times of drought and ExxonMobil works with communities to address concerns. When snowpack failed to fill the Green Mountain Reservoir in 2002, ExxonMobil donated 5,500 acre-feet of water from its allocations to help families and businesses in western Colorado.2 During a recent drought in Australia, our major facilities established water conservation teams to identify opportunities for saving water and implemented water conservation training for employees and contractors, launching projects that cut facility water withdrawals considerably.

Community water projects

In some communities where we operate, clean water is not available on a consistent basis. As a part of our approach to starting new operations, we consider opportunities that bring benefits to the local community and our business, including potentially investing in community water projects.

Indonesian woman and child getting water

For example, ExxonMobil’s affiliate in Indonesia, Mobil Cepu Limited (MCL), launched a community-based water program to reduce the incidence of waterborne diseases and promote healthier living in the Cepu Block area of Indonesia. During the dry season, many residents in this area lack reliable access to clean water. To help manage the program, the community established a committee responsible for managing the budget, constructing and monitoring water facilities, and handling distribution of water. One example is in the Ngasem Village, where a new water tower serves as the key source of potable water that is distributed to community households through an installed pipeline network. So far, the program has benefited more than 25,000 community members in 17 villages.

Sources

  1. Ellis, M., Dillich, S., and Margolis, N., “Industrial Water Use and Its Energy Implications,” December 2003.
  2. Denver Post, “Exxon’s Water-Rights Gift Quenches Thirsty W.Slope,” July 12, 2002

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