The oil sands industry has never been shy about acknowledging that managing mine tailings, the material left over after bitumen is separated from mined oil sands, is one of its biggest challenges.
Suncor’s TROTM tailings management process involves converting fluid tailings into solid landscapes suitable for reclamation.
Traditionally stored in tailings ponds so gravity can separate the individual components, tailings are a mixture of water, residual bitumen and fine clay particles. One pond layer, consisting of fine clay particles suspended in water, doesn’t settle quickly or easily.
Tailings management assessment report
A recent report from Alberta’s oil sands regulator (PDF) has illuminated just how big a challenge tailings management really is. Assessing the tailings performance of seven oil sands mining companies from 2010 to 2012 against Directive 74, which set targets for dealing with fluid tailings, the regulator pronounced that none of the companies, Suncor included, met the grade.
While some might say the targets may have been somewhat ambitious, others are wondering if the results suggest industry isn’t taking tailings management seriously. Are these performance results an indication oil sands miners are incapable of managing tailing beyond the undesirable practice of storing them in ever-growing ponds?
These are fair questions, which are being asked by industry critics, including Canadian environmental action organization Environmental Defence.
Progress being made
Make no mistake: mastering the tailings challenge that goes with oil sands mining is a top industry priority.
Although the initial Directive 74 results may not have met regulatory targets, real progress is being made, as noted in the regulator’s assessment.
To deal with tailings at its mine site, Suncor has developed a new management approach called the TROTM process, which uses a polymer flocculent to bind clay particles together for easier separation and drying.
It sounds simple but there’s complex science behind it: we’ve invested more than $1.3 billion to implement the TROTM process across our operations, and in the years ahead we expect it will help us reduce the number of tailings ponds at our current base mine site. This reduced land footprint will let us reclaim entire mine sites in about a third of the time it used to take with previous methods. This in turn will result in more rapid restoration of natural habitats.
As our Directive 74 results suggest, we’re still learning about how best to implement the TROTM process and other tailings management approaches, like coke capping.
Accelerating performance through collaboration
Suncor also continues to work with other member companies in Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) to develop and implement improved tailings technologies. Over the past seven years, COSIA companies have spent more than $500 million on collaborative tailings research and development.
Any big challenge worth conquering takes significant time and effort. Coming up with and using better ways to manage oil sands mine tailings is no exception.