New technology project funded by Clean Resource Innovation Network could eliminate oil sands tailings ponds

Mark Lowey
March 16, 2022

A technology project that just received a $10-million investment from the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN) has the potential to eliminate huge and problematic waste tailings ponds in the oil sands mining industry, proponents say.

Oil sands producers Suncor Energy, Syncrude and Imperial Oil are collaborating to commercialize a technology called non-aqueous extraction (NAE) to extract bitumen in oil sands mining operations.

If it proves successful at a large scale, NAE could replace the conventional method of extracting bitumen, which uses enormous amounts of heated water to separate bitumen trapped within oil sands deposits. The water is sourced from freshwater bodies in the oil sands region, including the Athabasca River in northern Alberta.

Fluid tailings left over from the hot water extraction process are stored in engineered tailings ponds that hold 1.3 trillion litres of tailings and cover about 178 square kilometres — so large they can be seen from space by satellites.

“NAE technology has the potential to eliminate tailings ponds, which would come with significant environmental and cost saving advantages to the industry,” Jessica Huynh, technology development coordinator at Suncor, said during a March 9 online webinar announcing the CRIN funding.

Tailings are ‘most pressing problem facing oil sands’

The existence of the tailings ponds has been the target of criticism from environmental groups and nearby Indigenous communities for years. The accumulation of fine tailings — composed of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen — is “the most pressing problem facing the oil sands mining industry,” according to Natural Resources Canada.

The tailings ponds contain toxic chemicals harmful to aquatic organisms and other animals. In 2008, about 1,600 waterfowl died after landing on a Syncrude tailings pond, an event that put Alberta’s oil sands under international environmental scrutiny after photos of oily, dying birds ran in media outlets around the world.

In a 2020 report, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation found evidence of contaminated water seeping into groundwater around oil sands tailings ponds, although it is unlikely to reach natural surface waters.

Because the fine tailings take so long to accumulate and settle, it takes decades to reclaim the ponds back to a solid surface. Since 1967, when oil sands operations started, the most recent available data shows that certified reclaimed land represents 0.1 percent of the total land disturbed by the oil sands industry, according to the Pembina Institute, a non-profit think tank.

NAE technology could be a game-changer. “NAE has the potential to eliminate fluid tailings and minimize tailings ponds, allow for immediate land reclamation, and reduce emissions from ponds,” Huynh said.

NAE could reduce the amount of water required by 80 percent per barrel of bitumen produced, Huynh said. The technology replaces the use of hot water to extract bitumen with a liquid hydrocarbon solvent, which produces dry tailings instead of fluid tailings.

The $10 million from CRIN will support the construction and operation of an NAE technology field demonstration unit in Alberta. The unit is a critical step on the path to large-scale commercial deployment, Huynh said.

The project is a collaboration by the three large oil sands producers and Exergy Solutions, a Calgary-based SME which provides technology development engineering services.

More than $44M for projects in four areas

CRIN last week announced $44.6 million in funding to support 17 projects through its “Reducing Environmental Footprint Technology Competition,” coordinated by Emissions Reduction Alberta. The projects have a combined project value of $177 million.

The projects focus on four areas: water technology, methane emissions monitoring and reduction, novel hydrocarbon extraction, and land and wellsite reclamation.

“Taken together, these projects represent an emissions reduction of approximately 64 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e), along with significant land and water use reductions,” Andy Fillmore, parliamentary secretary to Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne, said during the CRIN webinar.

CRIN was created in 2020 with $100 million over four years from the federal Strategic Innovation Fund, to accelerate technology development and commercialization in the oil and gas industry. Through three major technology competitions, CRIN has now provided a total of $80 million to 28 projects.

Together, these projects have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas industry by 119 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2033, according to CRIN.

GHG emissions from the upstream oil and gas sector amount to about 170 million tonnes, or 24 percent of Canada’s total 730 million tonnes, said Justin Wheeler, executive director, technology and innovation, at Emissions Reduction Alberta. “119 megatonnes [reduced] is a significant bite out of the oil and gas sector’s emissions,” he said.

There could be other benefits too. CRIN-funded projects are expected to reduce land use intensity by 62,000 hectares — equivalent to nearly 87,000 soccer fields — by 2033, said Ginny Flood, chair of CRIN’s board. Water use intensity could be reduced by 1.2 trillion litres, or enough to fill 480,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And the projects are expected to create about 2,400 new jobs by 2024, according to Flood.


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