After more than 40 years, oil sands mining has disturbed an area of about 530 square kilometres. As required by law, all lands disturbed by the oil sands must be reclaimed. Out of approximately 530 square kilometres of land disturbed by oil sands activities, 65 square kilometres of oil sands lands are currently under active reclamation. The first oil sands mining reclamation certificate was issued to Syncrude Canada Ltd. in March 2008. Tailings are produced at oil sands mines through the oil sands extraction process. Tailings are a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen produced through the extraction process and are often stored in tailings ponds or discontinued mine pits where the mixture is left to settle. Once the solids have been settled, the water can be reclaimed and recycled back in to the extraction process; more than 85 per cent of the water used by a typical oil sands mining operation is water recycled from the tailings operation.
Today’s mining and upgrading technology and research is focused around ways to accelerate the settling process of tailings, to reduce or eliminate tailings ponds altogether, to speed-up the reclamation of the land and to reduce the amount of energy used in the extraction process.Examples of recent oil sands mining innovations include:

  • Syncrude’s low energy extraction process (Aurora Mine) operating at approximately 40ºC. At these temperatures, the new Low Energy Extraction process consumes about one-third of the energy used in the conventional 80ºC process.
  • Shell and Exxon’s high-temperature froth treatment using higher temperatures to remove impurities from oil sands froth. This technology allows for the use of smaller equipment, less water and less energy, cutting emissions by approximately 10 to 15 per cent.
  • CNRL’s CO2 injection process (Horizon Mine) involving injecting waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into the tailings slurry lines before the tailings enter the pond, allowing the tailings mixtures to settle quickly and leave clearer water for recycling and reusing in the bitumen extraction process.
  • The oil sands mining industry’s use of various methods of consolidated tailings (CT) and non-segregating tailings (NST) to speed the tailings settling process. Gypsum is added to the mixture to encourage particles to conglomerate to form a more solid landscape. Over time, the mixture becomes more solid and releases water. This water is recycled back to the extraction plant for use in the separation process.
  • Suncor Energy’s recently submitted regulatory application for Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO). TRO involves converting fluid fine tailings more rapidly into a solid landscape suitable for reclamation. In the process, Suncor’s fine tailings, which settle out over the course of two to three years to a yogurt-like material called Mature Fine Tailings, are mixed with a polymer and deposited in thin layers over areas around the tailings ponds where they consolidate to a solid form. The process results in a dry material capable of being reclaimed in place or moved to another location for reclamation.
  • In addition, technologies such as freeze-thaw evaporative drying and centrifugation are also in advanced stages of pilot testing…all focused on speeding up the settling of tailings so that the land can be reclaimed more quickly.

Did you know...

Canada’s oil reserves are second in the world behind Saudi Arabia

Of 179 billion barrels of Canada’s oil reserves, the oil sands represent 97 per cent

For each permanent oil sands-related job, nine additional direct, indirect and induced jobs are created in Canada.

Currently 240,000 jobs in Canada are directly or indirectly linked to the oil sands.

Between 2000 and 2020, oil sands development has the potential to generate at least $123 billion in royalty and tax revenues for Canada’s federal and provincial governments.

The oil sands currently account for only 4.6 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is less than 0.1 per cent of total global emissions.

Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to legislate industrial greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Producers have made great strides in reducing the amount of emissions per barrel of bitumen extracted from the oil sands. The equivalent of 2.6 million tonnes of reductions have been made – the same as taking more than 550,000 cars off the road.

The province of Alberta has committed $4 billion toward climate change initiatives, including $2 billion for public transit and $2 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is the largest CCS investment in the world.

Air quality around oil sands operations is better than all North American cities reviewed by the Alberta Clean Air Strategic Alliance.

Alberta air quality standards are the most stringent in Canada.

Air quality in Fort McMurray is monitored around the clock. Results are available at the WBEA site.

Air quality has been extensively modeled and demonstrated to remain within Alberta’s strict air quality guidelines even with all projected oil sands development in place.

Oil sands are located below the surface of 140,200 square kilometres of land, 4.5 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

Mineable oil sands only exist under 0.1 per cent of Canada’s total boreal forest.

While disturbance is occurring daily, in more than 40 years oil sands mining has disturbed about one hundredth of one per cent of the Canadian boreal forest – some 500 square kilometres.

Since 2001, coordinated efforts between government and industry through Integrated Landscape Management (ILM) activities have reduced land surface disturbance in the region by 20 per cent.

As required by law, and included in all project approvals, reclamation work is ongoing and continuous in the oil sands. All lands disturbed by oil sands will be reclaimed.

Mining is only an option for oil sands that sit less than 75 metres under the surface.

More than 80 per cent of the oil sands will be developed using in-situ technologies.

In-situ projects resemble conventional oil development and do not require tailings ponds, or mine pits.

In-situ operations create linear disturbance of the surface for wellheads. But new technology and processes, including low-impact seismic and directional drilling, are reducing that footprint.

In Alberta, Alberta Environment regulates oil and gas industry water use under the Water Act. Oil and gas companies are subject to the same conditions for use as any other licensed water user in Alberta.

Currently, the oil sands industry draws less than half the water allocation allowed by Alberta Environment from the Athabasca River.

Water allocations are strictly controlled during low flow periods.

More than 80 per cent of water drawn by industry from the Athabasca is recycled.

Non-potable water which is unsuitable for drinking, livestock or irrigation use is used wherever possible for in-situ production.

Alberta Environment prohibits the release of any water to the Athabasca River that does not meet water quality requirements.

RAMP, a multi-stakeholder body, conducts annual monitoring of the river’s fish species, fish habitat and water quality. The monitoring has not detected significant changes to the Athabasca River. www.ramp-alberta.org

Bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks has seeped naturally into the Athabasca River as it cut its way through the landscape.

Tailings contain the water, residual bitumen, sand and clay that is left over when the bitumen is separated from the sand.

In the ponds, the solids separate from the water so the water may be recycled into the process again. Of the total water used by oil sands mines, 80 per cent is recycled.

During and after mining, the tailings ponds are reclaimed. No tailings water is released to the Athabasca River or any other watercourse.

The first tailings ponds will be reclaimed in 2010.

80 per cent of the oil sands resource will be developed using in-situ technology which does not require tailings ponds.

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