All forms of mining – whether coal, gold, uranium or potash – produce tailings. Oil sands tailings are the remaining sand, water, clay, silt and residual hydrocarbons left after the majority of hydrocarbons are extracted from the ore during our extraction process. Tailings are managed at Suncor’s Base Plant, as well as joint venture operations, Fort Hills and Syncrude. In situ production of oil sands bitumen does not create tailings.
Over the past several years, Suncor’s holistic Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO™) tailings management approach and implementation of new technology has allowed us to surface reclaim a tailings pond, Wapisiw Lookout. In addition, we have reduced the total number of active tailings ponds by converting one to a fluid tailings treatment area and making another trafficable using coke capping.
Tailings are categorized as either fluid or coarse tailings. Coarse tailings are comprised mostly the sand that remains after the bitumen is removed from the oil sand and are typically used to construct tailings dams and build supporting beaches on the perimeter of tailings ponds. Fluid tailings are the focus of our technology improvements and are formed from smaller particles of clay and silt that remain suspended in water.
Finding ways to dewater fluid tailings more quickly, for release back to the natural environment, is critical to improving Suncor’s overall reclamation planning and performance. Left unmanaged, fluid tailings could take centuries to naturally dewater enough to be reclaimed. Suncor’s tailings treatment systems have increased treatment capacity and we continue to reduce the inventory of fluid tailings stored on our sites.
Tailings Management Regulations
Provincial regulations guiding the management of oil sands tailings have been in place since 2009. The current Tailings Management Framework (TMF) was developed by Alberta Environment and Parks under the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan and implemented in 2015. The Alberta Energy Regulator also implemented Directive 085: Fluid Tailings Management for Oil Sands Mining Projects in 2016, as a key part of TMF implementation, to minimize fluid tailings inventories through fluid tailings treatment and progressive reclamation during the life of a project.
Suncor has enhanced its management plans and tailings management approach to meet the requirements of the TMF. These plans incorporate what we’ve learned through our implementation of various treatment technologies and through sharing information and best practices with members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
Indigenous and Stakeholder Engagement
It is critical that we work with and routinely engage with Indigenous communities and other stakeholders to review our approach and refine our plans associated with tailings. We continue to enhance how information about our tailings operations is shared.
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There are stringent regulations governing tailings and dam safety in Canada. Alberta regulators released the new Dam and Canal Safety Directive in 2018 that establishes requirements for industry leading practices for dam safety management regulations. The Mining Association of Canada’s (MAC) Toward Sustainable Mining Tailings Protocol, together with Canadian Dam Safety Association, is recognized as the benchmark for tailings facility management. These protocols are now being adopted around the world as best practice and we meet or exceed both.
Below is a summary of all tailings facilities that Suncor operates or has an interest in. The consequence classification for a dam does not imply a high risk dam because it does not factor in the likelihood or the extensive systems that are in place to reduce the likelihood of failure to as low as possible.