Suncor recognizes the importance of addressing the tailings challenge associated with the development of oil sands mines. Oil sands mines produce tailings — left over material produced during the extraction process that separates bitumen from the oil sand. We have developed a new tailings management approach called the TRO™ process that's expected to significantly improve the speed of tailings reclamation. We believe our TRO™ technology will help us meet provincial regulatory requirements and, just as importantly, the changing expectations of our stakeholders.
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Tailings ponds, an Ongoing Challenge
Oil sands mines produce tailings that are a mixture of water, clay, sand and residual bitumen produced during the extraction process. When tailings are released to a pond, the heaviest material — mostly sand — settles to the bottom, while water rises to the top. The middle layer, the mature fine tailings (MFT), is made up of fine clay particles suspended in water. Some of these particles settle, but much remains suspended. The challenge is that MFT does not settle within a reasonable timeframe. As a result, Suncor has needed more and larger oil sands tailings ponds over the years.
In the 1990s, we pioneered consolidated tailings technology to help speed up the consolidation of MFT into a soil-like deposit that can be re-vegetated and reclaimed. Since then we have developed a new technique called the TRO™ process, which promises significant improvements.
A New Approach to Tailings Management
The implementation of the TRO™ process 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 for more rapid reclamation activities to occur.
The new process is expected to improve tailings management going forward, and can also be used to reduce existing tailings inventory at Suncor's operations. The company has been researching, developing and testing the TRO™ technology since 2003.
Watch a video to see how our TRO™ process works
Regulatory Approval Received for Tailings Management Plan
In June 2010, Suncor received approval for its tailings management plan from the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). The plan proposed the expansion of our new TRO™ tailings management approach.
View our press release
View the ERCB press release
TRO™ Process Implementation Under Way
As of 2012, Suncor has spent more than $1.3 billion to research, develop and implement its TRO™ process across our operations. We expect our TRO™ method to help us rapidly reduce our existing inventory of oil sands tailings and the need for future oil sands tailings storage ponds.
The technology has already enabled Suncor to cancel plans for five additional tailings ponds at its existing mine operations in addition to two ponds contemplated for the new North Steepbank extension. In the years ahead, Suncor also expects to reduce the number of tailings ponds at its present mine from the current eight to just two — shrinking the total land area covered by the ponds by approximately 80%.
More than 1,000 employees and contractors worked to ramp up the TRO™ process during the summer 2011 peak drying months. Heading into the 2012-13 winter season (when drying isn't possible), Suncor had:
- processed approximately 2.4 million tonnes of tailings fines in 2011 (compared to 2.9 million tonnes of tailings fine in 2010 and 188,000 tonnes of tailings fines in 2009)
- peak capacity to process up to 30,000 tonnes of tailings fines per day (compared to a tailing fines processing capacity of 1,500 tonnes per day in 2009)
- commissioned six TRO™ process mature fine tailings (MFT) drying systems (compared to four drying systems in 2010 and one drying system in 2009)
- advanced plans to add MFT drying sites annually for the next three years resulting in increased capacity to process tailings fines.
The first phase of the project to implement the TRO™ process was completed in 2012 with the second phase scheduled to be completed by the end of 2013.
In 2010, Suncor co-founded the Oil Sands Tailings Consortium (OTSC) along with six other oil sands companies. Each company committed to sharing its existing tailings research and technology to improve tailings management in the oil sands industry. Suncor waived its rights to its TRO™ process in order share process details with other consortium members. In 2012, the OTSC transitioned into Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
Learn more about Suncor’s collaborative approach to tailings management
In 2009, Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) introduced Directive 74, setting out specified performance criteria for reducing fluid tailings volumes with the aim of minimizing and eventually eliminating long-term storage of fluid tailings.
To date, no oil sands operator is in compliance with Directive 74 because no company has been able to implement its tailings reduction technologies at a pace that would allow it to meet the directive’s original timelines.
In Suncor’s case, our compliance plan is based on implementing our TRO™ process. We are making significant progress, and Suncor is on track to be in compliance with Directive 74 in the near future.
Learn more about TRO™ and Directive 74
Learn more about Directive 74 at the ERCB website
Plans for Additional Tailings Ponds Cancelled
The TRO™ process is changing how Suncor manages tailings at its mine, which processes 180 million tonnes of oil sand annually and ingests about 50,000 tonnes of fine clays per day.
TRO™ technology development, regulatory approval and commercial implementation have already enabled Suncor to cancel plans for five additional tailings ponds at its existing mine operations. In the years ahead, Suncor also expects to reduce the number of tailings ponds at its present mine site from eight to just two, shrinking the total land area covered by the ponds by approximately 80%.
Suncor, Industry Set New Direction for Tailings Research
Because tailings management is an industry-wide challenge, Suncor and six other oil sands companies announced plans in December 2010 to work together in a unified effort to advance tailings management. Each company has pledged to share its existing tailings research and technology and to remove barriers to collaborating on future tailings research and development.
Suncor intends to share details specific to its TRO™ process. In turn, the companies are committing to future research investments to further accelerate tailings technology advances.
View the tailings research announcement
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