Suncor has submitted a regulatory application for changes to the company's oil sands mining and extraction operations that target significant improvement in the speed of reclamation of oil sands tailings at the company's existing oil sands operations near Fort McMurray. The proposed process changes and implementation of new technology, called Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO) are subject to approval by the Energy Resources Conservation Board, Alberta Environment and Suncor's Board of Directors.
"TRO is a significant advance in tailings management and reclamation," said Kirk Bailey, executive vice president, Oil Sands. "We believe it will help us meet new provincial regulatory requirements and, just as importantly, the changing expectations of stakeholders."
Tailings are a mixture of fine clay, sand, water and residual bitumen produced through the oil sands extraction process. As tailings settle, a portion will eventually form into mature fine tailings (MFT), a substance that historically has taken many decades to firm up sufficiently for planting and surface reclamation. Consolidated tailings (CT) technology, pioneered by Suncor in the 1990s, is the current method of speeding this settling process. The CT process adds coarse sand and gypsum to accelerate the release of water.
"Consolidated Tailings has proven effective, but in this industry, the focus is always on developing new technology and better processes," said Bailey.
The implementation of TRO involves converting fluid fine tailings more rapidly into a solid landscape suitable for reclamation. In this process, MFT is mixed with a polymer flocculent, then deposited in thin layers over sand beaches with shallow slopes. The resulting product is a dry material that is capable of being reclaimed in place or moved to another location for final reclamation. This drying process occurs over a matter of weeks, allowing more rapid reclamation activities to occur. The new process is expected to improve management of tailings going forward, and can also be used to reduce existing tailings inventory at Suncor's operations.
Suncor has been working closely with key stakeholders to ensure they understand the proposed new process and technology and the company understands any concerns they may have. This stakeholder engagement will continue through the regulatory review process. Pending approvals, Suncor plans to begin rapidly accelerating the implementation TRO in 2010.
"In 2010, Suncor plans to officially complete the reclamation of our first tailings pond to a solid surface," said Bailey. "It's fitting that in the same year we reach an important reclamation milestone, we expect to implement improved technology to increase the pace of reclamation. It's all about continuous improvement in our environmental, social and economic performance."
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