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Suncor Energy Receives Conditional Regulatory Approval for Oil Sands Tailings Management Plan; Projected 30% Reduction in Volume

Tro
Schematic of Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO). Click to enlarge.

Suncor Energy has received conditional approval for its oil sands fluid tailings management plan from Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). The plan proposed the expansion of a new approach to tailings management called TRO (Tailings Reduction Operations), which involves converting fluid tailings into a solid landscape suitable for reclamation. The project is located 40 km northwest of Fort McMurray.

Tailings are a mixture of fine clay, sands, water and residual bitumen produced through the oil sands extraction process, and are held in massive “ponds”. As tailings settle, a portion will eventually form mature fine tailings (MFT), a substance that has historically taken many decades to firm up sufficiently for reclamation.

A December 2008 report published by Environmental Defence concluded that oil sands tailing ponds are leaking more than 11 million liters of contaminated tailings water per day—more than four billion liters (1.056 billion gallons US) per year—into the groundwater in Canada. (Earlier post.)

Tailings ponds contain toxic contaminants such as heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and naphthenic acids. Naphthenic acids in particular break down very slowly and therefore pose a long-term threat to the groundwater of the region.

According to ERCB, tailings ponds arising from oil sands surface mining operations currently cover an area of more than 130 M square meters with some 720 M cubic metres of fine tailings (FT) collected. ERCB recently issued Directive 074 which requires oil sands operators to reduce the amount of FT going into liquid tailings by 50% by 2013 and to turn captured FT into stackable deposits ready for reclamation five years after deposits have ceased.

During the Suncor TRO process, MFT is mixed with a polymer flocculent and then deposited in thin layers over sand beaches with shallow slopes. This drying process occurs over a matter of weeks, allowing more rapid reclamation activities to occur. The resulting product is a dry material that can be reclaimed in place or moved to another location for contouring and replanting with native vegetation, according to the company.

The ERCB believes that application of TRO will enable Suncor to reduce the volume of fluid tailings remaining at the end of the project life by 33 million cubic meters (about 30%). Suncor’s plan does not include the creation of any new tailings ponds and will allow Suncor to operate five fewer tailings ponds and use less space for fluid tailings storage than originally applied for.

TRO will require Suncor to continue utilizing four of its existing tailings ponds. Those tailings ponds are scheduled to be decommissioned in 2017, 2029, 2032, and 2035.

Suncor has been researching, developing and testing the TRO technology since 2003. The company will rapidly accelerate the implementation of this technology across its existing operations.

We expect to invest more than $1 billion to implement our new TRO technology, potentially reducing tailings reclamation time by decades.

—Kirk Bailey, executive vice president, Oil Sands

Suncor has already committed approximately $450 million to TRO technology and other measures designed to improve tailings management and meet Directive 074 requirements, according to the ERCB. Thus far, oil sands operators have committed more than $1 billion in upgrades to comply with Directive 074, the Board said.

Suncor’s plan is the third of those submitted by six oil sands operators in September 2009 to the ERCB. Tailings plans submitted by Albian Sands Energy Inc.; Canadian Natural Resources Limited; Imperial Oil Resources Ventures Limited; and Shell Canada Inc. are currently being reviewed by ERCB staff.

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Comments

HarveyD

This is as much of a joke as the announced leak rate in the Golf of Mexico. The facts are that the tailing ponds are 30+% larger every year.

Stan Peterson

Harvey D,

Your statement may be true but this is a partial solution to the temporary problem, in any case, and preferable to the conventional alternative.

Oil sands expansion is due to the faux economy of green efforts in preventing oil development from other sources of petroleum. Massive amounts of North America are outlawed from development, but the oil demand still exists even as it slowly declines. It is almost inevitable that development will proceed in the oil sands or far offshore.

The US is drowning in bureaucratic paperwork and red tape demanded and never read. It takes enough paperwork to fill a small room to get permissions to drill an offshore well. To drill two wells requires two rooms full of paper and three wells requires three, if approval can even be obtained at all, for excessive drilling.

But "backwards & undeveloped" Brazil knows as does any petroleum drilling engineer that you drill a well along with its safety relief wells. and Petrobras and its licensees, (BP?), routinely do so. But in the advanced US such authorizations are not allowed, hence we get serial relief wells drilled when necessary after spills like the Gulf, and regulation redtape forced accidents.

HarveyD

Stan: If we are to carry on with our acquired oil addiction, we may as well do it with the cheapest and cleanest lite crude from Saudi Arabia, Irak, Iran, Koweit etc. Why do it the hard way with deep sea risky drilling and extremely pollution tar sands from Alberta unless we really have to? We could always sell properties in major cities like NY, LA, Chicago etc to keep our gas guzzlers guzziling!!.

ToppaTom

Most of us do not want to enrich the mid East with our oil appetite and we don't want to sell America.

Many of us believe it is worth much sacrifice to stop oil imports - but it is not worth sacrificing America to stop oil consumption. - Reduce oil imports first, reduce oil consumption rationally, not blindly.

HarveyD

TT: Yes USA has a real problem to solve. To reduce oil imports but to keep driving gas guzzlers doesn't match up. USA can only produce about 33% of the oil it consumes. To reduce consumption from 19.4 M barrels/day to 6 M barrels/day will require major changes that many will not like. USA cannot produce enough agro and bio fuel (13.4 M barrels/day) to feed the existing gas guzzlers. If you stop oil imports, many gas pumps will go dry within a few days and many drivers would go wild. The average gas guzzler user does not understand the enormity of the problem. Electrification of 67% of the current fleet (or about 167 M vehicles) could be one of the best way to solve the problem but it cannot be done overnight. Drill baby Drill cannot ever raise the local crude oil production from 6 M barrels/day to 19.4 M barrels/day. Converting 100 M to 150 M gas guzzlers to NG could help to ease the problem but USA would soon run out of NG.

Good luck USA.

Mannstein

Good news. My SUNCOR stock should appreciate nicely.

Good investing.

SJC

I don't know if you say things like this to incite or just to give us a glimpse of your true nature.

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