2010 Winner: Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Technology And Innovation sponsored by Agrium Inc.
Innovating in Tailings Pond Reduction
Already an established pioneer in fine tailings management, Suncor Energy is again on the forefront of finding solutions to this key environmental concern. The company has developed a novel approach to dramatically improve tailings management in Alberta’s oil sands.
In the 1990s Suncor’s then-new and innovative Consolidated Tailings (CT) technology helped speed up the consolidation of fine tailings into a soil-like deposit that can be re-vegetated and reclaimed. The company’s latest improvement, Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO), reduces the time it takes to reclaim tailings ponds by decades – from over 30 years to under 10 years.
Tailings ponds store material from oil sands mines consisting of a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen – some of which settle at the bottom. The water rises to the top to be released into Suncor’s water recycling system. The middle layer called mature fine tailings, or fines, consists of clay particles and water, some of which settle. Others can remain suspended for decades. Because of the slow process, Suncor has needed more and larger tailings ponds to store this material.
The TRO project involves implementing a new technology to dewater or ‘dry’ the fines as an alternative to CT. Using this approach, dried fines can be created within weeks.
TRO puts Suncor at the head of industry in demonstrating management plans to address the Energy Resource Conservation Board’s Directive 74. The new directive sets out requirements for the regulation of tailings operations associated with oil sand mines.
“At Suncor we are always identifying new ways that we can do things to reduce our environmental footprint,” says Shelley Powell, Vice President Extraction. “Our principle is to always operate at, or above, regulatory compliance standards; and whenever we can we will use new technology to help us.”
Suncor has obtained approval from the ERCB to implement TRO, and has changed its existing approach to managing the approximately 80 million square metres of tailings that are processed every year, with a ramp up towards full commercial scale operations starting in 2010.
Tailings management is a key issue of many of Suncor’s stakeholders and for the general public. TRO addresses many of the concerns the public and industry has. By more quickly drying the fines, industry can accelerate the time it takes to reclaim the tailings ponds, significantly reduce the need to build more tailings ponds and curtail the existing fines inventory.
It’s taken several years of intensive effort by a cross-functional team to refine the technology. Suncor’s TRO team has been conducting field-scale trials to test the fines drying technology since 2003.
“We had a team from across Suncor Energy,” Ms. Powell says. “It was a fabulous team. The boundaries between functions blurred as we collaborated to improve the technology.” People from Operations, Maintenance, Engineering, and Mining contributed to TRO. The project also included partners from academia and industry.
Ms. Powell adds that this successful project is an illustration that Suncor is diligent in its efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of its operations and that of industry.
“This is a good news story and Suncor is proud to improve our environmental performance by being part of the solution to this industry-wide challenge.”