Alberta’s energy regulator has given its thumbs-up to Suncor Energy Inc’s plan to handle waste from its massive oilsands operations near Fort McMurray.
“This is great news and a significant milestone in addressing one of the greatest reclamation challenges in oilsands mining,” said Kirk Bailey, Suncor’s (TSX:SU) executive vice-president of oilsands.
Suncor’s plan is the third to be approved since the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board ordered oilsands miners to clean up their tailings ponds — enormous lakes water, clay, sand and bitumen left behind after crude has been extracted.
Calgary-based Suncor, Canada’s largest energy company, plans to invest more than $1 billion on technology to shorten the time it takes for fine clay particles to settle in the ponds. In the past, it has taken several decades for mature fine tailings to separate. But in Suncor’s Tailings Reduction Operations, or TRO, process, the substance dries out in a matter of weeks. Vegetation can then be planted over the dry material. Tailings ponds gained worldwide notoriety in 2008, when 1,600 waterfowl died after landing on a giant lake at Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s oilsands mine.
The ERCB estimates tailings ponds today contain about 840 million cubic metres of fluid and cover about 170 square kilometres across Northern Alberta. In a release, the ERCB said TRO will allow Suncor to reduce the volume of fluid tailings by 30 per cent by the end of the project’s life. “Suncor’s plan does not include the creation of any new tailings ponds and will actually allow Suncor to operate five fewer tailings ponds and use less space for fluid tailings storage than originally applied for,” said the ERCB release.