Photo above shows reclaimed oil sands tailings pond.  Syncrude Canada photo.

Oil sands tailings ponds hold over 340 billion gallons of waste

Environmentalists are concerned a recent ruling by the Alberta Energy Regulator green-lighting the extension of the time allowed Suncor and CNRL to cleanup oil sands tailings ponds will delay the process for decades.

Currently, oil sands tailings ponds cover about 97 square miles and hold 340 billion gallons of waste.

Bloomberg reports that critics say industry players could leave taxpayers on the hook for the $27 billion cleanup.  But, industry says it will use the time granted them by the regulator to find cheaper ways to clean up the ponds.

Jodi McNeill, policy analyst at the Pembina Institute, is not convinced.  She told Bloomberg “Rather than waiting for that silver bullet and continuing to test things out in the lab, we think that the technologies that exist today should be implemented in full force.”

Suncor says it is investing “significant resources and capital” in figuring out a better system to clean up the ponds.  Sneh Seetal, spokeswoman for Suncor, told Bloomberg that the company has improved its methods and now can treat three times the tailings ponds it produces a year.  With that, Suncor says it is shrinking the backlog that has built up over decades.

CNRL spokeswoman Julie Woo says Canadian Natural plans its land use with the wrap up of operations in mind.  According to Woo, CNRL has reclaimed 378 hectares and planted over 630,000 trees at its Horizon mine since 2009.

One of the problems with the ponds is that settling of the tailings, a combination of sand and chemicals, has taken longer than engineers had originally expected.

But, Suncor says it has successfully transformed a tailings pond into a 220-hectare watershed which is capable of supporting plants and wildlife.

“That land is now a thriving ecosystem,” Seetal said, adding that bears and other animals have been seen in the area.  According to Seetal, the company has also covered another pond with a layer of petroleum coke, which allows vehicles to travel over it.

The cost to clean up the tailings ponds is high. Bloomberg reports Alberta regulators estimate the clean up bill for the oil sands facilities is $27 billion and so far, companies have only posted about $1 billion in security.

The Province of Alberta holds oil sands assets against the liability, but McNeill is concerned that because of the high costs associated with the oil sands, producers are vulnerable to cyclical oil prices.

But Seetal argues even through the most recent downturn on the oil market, Suncor turned a profit.

“We’re in this business for the long haul, and we have a history of being a responsible developer,” she said.

According to Dan Wicklum, chief executive of the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, industry has spent about $12 billion on treating tailings and $50 million on research.

The companies have discovered new filtration methods and Wicklum says they are currently testing injecting carbon dioxide into the tailings and running electrical currents through them to quicken the settling process.

As well, MGX Minerals out of Vancouver and PurLucid Treatment Solutions Inc. are working together to create a technology that filters tailings ponds to produce lithium.  This lithium could be used in batteries.

The Government of Canada has kicked in $8 million to scale up a pilot project.

Wicklum says there are challenges involved, including handling the massive flow of tailings and finding an economical and energy efficient solution.  “We don’t want to solve one problem and exacerbate another.”

But McNeill remains concerned.  “After 50 years, we’re still seeing the can kicked down the road.”

Syncrude Canada photo.