Will We Ever See a Technology for Cleaning Up Oil Sands Tailing Ponds?

April 11, 2013

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Alberta's black gold.

Alberta's black gold.

The technology and processes used to extract oil from bitumen in “oil sands” deposits is promising to vastly expand the world’s supply of oil -- providing thousands of jobs and, hopefully, bringing down prices through abundance.

What will also provide many jobs is cleaning up after the process. This presents a great technological challenge as well.

Canada. Where the action is.

Canada is the center of action for oil sands extraction, mainly because by far the most accessible reserves of bitumen at present are found in Alberta. Kazakhstan and Russia have some known deposits as well, and there are bits scattered about in places like Madagascar and Utah, but they pale in comparison. Canada’s the only country with an commercial oil sands industry of any size whatsoever -- of the total natural bitumen reserves estimated at 250 billion barrels, 177 billion barrels are in Canada.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) explains that there are two methods of getting the bitumen out of oil sands: open-pit mining or “in situ” for getting the stuff deep underground. “In open-pit mining,” CAPP officials explain, “companies use hot water to separate very heavy oil (bitumen) from the sticky sand. This water is then sent to a tailings pond -- often a discontinued mine pit. The tailings are a mixture of water, clay, sand, and residual bitumen.”

The water in these ponds is usually recycled in the mining operation. The process of extracting bitumen “requires large amount of water and hydrocarbon solvents,” according to a wiki on the subject from Kenyon College. The resulting byproduct, the wiki explains, “creates large volumes of water, sands, clays, residual hydrocarbons, heavy metals, naphtha diluents, and naphthenic acids, which are termed as tailings.”

Time for the fun part -- cleaning up.

Obviously this can’t be discharged into the environment, so it’s pumped into tailings ponds, large holding pits. And then the cleanup begins. Or, rather, the wrangling about cleanup begins.

In an in-depth five-part series for the pro-environmentalist online journal The Tyee, Geoff Dembicki wrote that since it’s still such a new industry, “producers don't know the exact financial burden of cleanup. Addressing it early, therefore, provides uncertain economic rewards.”

In other words, from the perspective of those out mining,  if you’re still producing from a mine, and you will be for years and years, and there aren’t too many cases of closed mines, you really have no earthly clue how much it’s going to cost to clean it all up when you’re done with the mine, so every dollar you put aside now for eventual cleanup is a) a dollar that’s not returning you a profit, and b) speculative at best.

As Dembicki noted, the University of Alberta's Oil Sands Research and Information Network's executive director, Chris Powter, recently wrote "For most of the last 45 years it has been assumed that any remediation… would not happen for many years and therefore effort should be spent on more immediate issues."

Directive 074 got some action.

Sure someday all producers will be required to clean everything up, that’s pretty much assumed, but that day isn’t here yet, so until it is, there’s no real pressing economic reason, from the producers’ point of view, to sink millions of dollars in something they’re really not required to do and might not ever be fully required to do.

Not that they’re ignoring the issue. Dembicki reported that in 2009 Alberta enacted cleanup regulation Directive 074, which requires oil sands companies to “steadily reduce the percentage of mature fine tailings they create each year.”

Tailings ponds.

Tailings ponds.

Such tailings comprise a major component of what Dembicki says are “176 square kilometers of liquid toxic waste stored in ponds across Northern Alberta.”

Responding to the directive, major producers such as Suncor and Syncrude promised to invest over $1 billion each in tailings reduction operations, with Syncrude officials announcing plans for a billion-dollar “full-scale commercial plant" to process tailings to be operative by 2015.

And government is starting to get impatient. Industry journal Canadian Manufacturing reported in early April that the Alberta government has given oil sands producer Suncor “one month to fix problems with one of its wastewater treatment ponds, two years after the problem was discovered.”

Toxicity in the water “was found to exceed allowable limits,” the report said, so government is prohibiting Suncor from releasing water from the pond -- “the final step in Suncor’s treatment process -- into the Athabasca River in March 2011.” But after two years water samples from the pond still kill rainbow trout fingerlings. The government has given Suncor until April 30 to get the problem sorted out.

Hundreds of firms trying to cash in.

Anticipating the time when oil sands producers will have to clean everything up, there are hundreds, of firms of varying sizes, from established corporations to shoestring garage operations, working on technology and processes that will address the problem.

And there are technology and process approaches to cleanup that have worked -- in the lab and in controlled demonstrations. Dembicki highlighted Titanium Corp., which developed a way to reclaim (profitable) heavy minerals as well as more bitumen from oil sands waste. CEO and president Scott Nelson said they got three oil sands production heavyweights, Suncor, Syncrude, and CNRL to participate in a $15 million pilot-scale demonstration plant, which turned in “outstanding" results, Dembicki quotes Nelson as saying.

Reclaiming technology at work.

Reclaiming technology at work.

 

Yes the technology is expensive -- $400 million to implement at a major oil sands site -- but Titanium officials say “recovered minerals and bitumen would easily recoup that investment within a short period.”

Industry officials said yes, very nice, thanks for the demonstration, we’ll think about it. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. "It's maddening, to be honest, but we're not giving up,” Nelson has said.

But the industry gets dozens, hundreds of such claims. They’re numb to it by now. And since they don’t have to buy any one, what’s the rush? Yeah this sounds good, but maybe a better one will come along tomorrow. And results in a lab are one thing, results in a bitter Northern Alberta winter something else entirely.

Syncrude’s Base Mine Lake.

Syncrude’s Base Mine Lake.

Oil sands producers like the sort of solutions that don’t really cost much. Last month the Edmonton Journal reported that the provincial governmental agency Alberta Environment approved Syncrude’s idea for “new guidelines for constructing large artificial lakes in the northeast to store toxic tailings and close off old oil sands mine sites.”

The idea is to pump the water from the tailings ponds into an old mine pit, throw about five meters of clean water on top, and wait for naturally-occurring bacteria to eat all the sludge which will over time drift to the bottom, and voila -- an artificial lake. The Journal noted that “government has endorsed a scientific report which outlines the most up-to-date science on how best to construct such lakes,” known as “end pit lakes.”

It’s a fairly common method of dealing with old mines in metals mining, but critics of the plan call the idea “unproven” for oil sands mines.

Syncrude thinks it can thus convert a 20-year-old tailings pond into a clean lake, and has 30 such artificial lakes planned “as an alternative to reforesting some of thousands of hectares of boreal forest dug up to get at the oilsands -- as well as to store tailings or waste from the open-pit mines.”

Nikki Booth, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, told the Journal that one such end pit lake from an old coal mine is now used for fishing, and the government has proclaimed it “reclaimed.”

Another promising possibility is the brainchild of Montreal-based Gradek Energy, whose founder and current president, Thomas Gradek, “designed a lightweight bead about the size of a Kellogg's Corn Pop, whose surface attracts oil,” according to Dembicki: “Deployed in large quantities, you could clean up oil slicks without any chemicals.”

Gradek and his beads.

Gradek and his beads.

 

Gradek told Dembicki that there’s probably “about 172 million barrels' worth of bitumen” in various wastewater holding pits around Alberta, and estimates that his company’s beads “could recover 98 per cent of that bitumen,” as well as reduce toxicity of the remaining water.

And they might be The Answer to the problem. Or Titanium’s technology could be. Or end lake pits. Or the technology a couple geeks are cooking up in their parents’ garage as this is written. When there needs to be an answer we’ll see what it will be.

 
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