New NPRI Tailings Reporting Provides Greater Transparency for Oil Sands Mining

August 09, 2010 - Calgary, Alberta

The 2009 National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) released August 6 includes new data on the mining industry's waste rock and tailings, providing greater transparency and important context on oil sands mines.

Reporting of certain substances contained in mine tailings, the by-product of bitumen or mineral extraction, is a timely new requirement of Environment Canada's NPRI reporting system and database, given increased focus on tailings ponds associated with oil sands mining. The new reporting requirements require mining facilities to report not only the quantities of NPRI substances released to air, water and land (as before), but also the quantities and concentrations of NPRI substances placed in waste rock and tailings containment areas.

"Including mine waste rock and tailings in the NPRI enhances the transparency of Canada's mining industry, including oil sands mines," said David Collyer, President of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

It also puts the oil sands mining industry into important context.

"Oil sands mines produced about 10 per cent of the total tailings and waste rock reported from 2006 to 2009, important context for the overall impact of oil sands mining," Collyer said. "The fact is all industries have an impact, oil and gas included. Transparency and reporting processes like NPRI are essential to understanding industrial contaminants and balancing our need for environmental protection, economic growth and secure reliable supply from our resources.

"Canada's oil and gas industry is improving tailings performance. We're investing more than $1 billion in tailings research and upgrades to reduce tailings inventories and speed up reclamation. Reclamation of the first tailings pond, Suncor's Pond One, is underway," Collyer said.

Tailings and Tailings Ponds

About 20 per cent of total oil sands reserves is recoverable through mining techniques and require the use of tailings ponds. The remaining 80 per cent is recoverable through drilling methods similar to conventional oil.

Oil sands tailings ponds cover an area of about 170 square kilometres. Canada's oil sands industry is significantly increasing investments in technology to address the amount of tailings stored and to speed up reclamation of tailings areas.

Tailings ponds are large engineered dam and dyke systems designed to contain and settle the water, sand, fine clays, silts, residual bitumen and other by-products of the oil sands mining and extraction process.

The tailings substances reported to Environment Canada's NPRI originate in oil sands ore (clay, sand, water and bitumen) or are introduced during processing to improve bitumen recovery.

Tailings are not released to the environment. They are contained in ponds to allow the settling of sand and clay. Clarified water from tailings ponds is recycled and the sand, clay and residual bitumen is later reclaimed. To protect land and groundwater from seepage, collection systems and groundwater monitoring wells collect and monitor any tailings that migrate through the dykes. Seepage collected is pumped back into the ponds. Any seepage detected but not collected is reported to Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board. (http://www.ercb.ca/docs/documents/directives/directive074.pdf).

Oil sands regulatory approvals mandate groundwater and aquatic monitoring to demonstrate seepages will not cause harm to area streams and rivers. To date, monitoring shows no evidence of tailings causing harm to streams or rivers. Substances contained in oil sands tailings are not currently being released or predicted to be released in quantities or concentrations that would degrade or alter the water quality of area streams or rivers.

Tailings Water Recycling

In addition to acting as storage facilities, tailings ponds are settling basins to enable water recycling, allowing operators to use clarified water over and over. Today 80-90 per cent of the water used to extract oil from oil sands recycles from tailings ponds, reducing demand for fresh water from the Athabasca River and other sources.

Tailings Pond Reclamation

Inventories of tailings and tailings reclamation schedules are required by the Alberta government. Regulations are in place to speed up the reclamation process and reduce the size of ponds.

Suncor Energy's Pond One, the first tailings pond put into service in the 1960s, is currently undergoing reclamation and will be the first full liquid tailings area reclaimed to government standards, including both wetland and dry landscapes.

Additional tailings management and closure plans have been approved by the Alberta government, defining a schedule for the reclamation and return of today's tailings ponds to the ecosystem.

Oil sands mining operators Syncrude Canada Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc., Shell Canada Limited and Canadian Natural Resources Limited are developing innovative new tailings technologies. Several universities and agencies are also researching new methods to speed up separation of water and silts, enabling the faster recycling of water and faster return of tailings areas to productive landscapes that support a range of land uses similar to that of predisturbance(1). More information about tailings ponds

Oil and Gas NPRI Reporting

The 2009 NPRI data for Canada's oil and gas industry can be found at http://www.ec.gc.ca/inrp-npri/default.asp?lang=En&n=B85A1846-1. Results can be queried for 'Upstream Oil and Gas' as well as 'Oil Sands and Heavy Oil.'

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers represents companies, large and small, that explore for, develop and produce natural gas and crude oil throughout Canada. CAPP's member companies produce about 90 per cent of Canada's natural gas and crude oil. CAPP's associate members provide a wide range of services that support the upstream crude oil and natural gas industry. Together CAPP's members and associate members are an important part of a $110-billion-a-year national industry that provides essential energy products. CAPP's mission is to enhance the economic sustainability of the Canadian upstream petroleum industry in a safe and environmentally and socially responsible manner, through constructive engagement and communication with governments, the public and stakeholders in the communities in which we operate.

- 30 -

BACKGROUNDER
Tailings Ponds

- Tailings ponds are large engineered dams and dyke systems designed to contain water and settle the sand, fine clays, silts, residual bitumen and other by-products of the oil sands mining and extraction process.

- Tailings substances reported to Environment Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory originate in oil sands ore (clay, sand, water and bitumen) or are introduced during processing to improve bitumen recovery.

- Tailings ponds contain the tailings to allow the settling of sand and clay.

- Clarified water from tailings ponds is recycled and the sand, clay and residual bitumen is later reclaimed.

- To protect the land and groundwater from seepage, collection systems and groundwater monitoring wells collect and monitor any tailings migration through the dykes.

- Seepage collected is pumped back into the ponds. Any seepage detected but not collected is reported to Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board.

- Under Alberta government legislation, the industry is required to reclaim tailings ponds to a sustainable landscape at the end of their useful life.

- Oil sands regulatory approvals mandate groundwater and aquatic monitoring to demonstrate seepages will not cause harm to area streams. To date monitoring shows no evidence of tailings seepages causing harm to rivers or streams.

- There are no harmful substances currently being released or predicted to be released in quantities or concentrations that would degrade or alter the quality of the water in the oil sands region.

- Reclamation takes many years because the fine silts are slow to settle.

- Once settling occurs the water is sent to another area of the oil sands operation for reuse. When the pond is drained, it is back-filled and the surface contoured. Topsoil is replaced and the surface is revegetated with trees and shrubs.

- When the Alberta government determines the area has met its criteria for reclamation, they will certify it and the land will be officially returned to the Province.

- The first tailings pond, Suncor's Pond One, is undergoing reclamation and will be the first full liquid tailings area reclaimed to government standards, including both wetland and dry landscapes.

- In 2009, the ERCB issued Directive 074, which mandated new industry-wide criteria for tailings management and annual reporting on modified tailings plans.

- To date three tailings plans have been approved under Directive 074 and other plans are being reviewed by the ERCB. Oil sands operators are investing more than $1 billion in tailings research and upgrades to reduce tailings inventories and speed up reclamation in compliance with the directive. (Source: http://www.ercb.ca/docs/new/newsrel/2010/nr2010-08.pdf )

Learn more about tailings ponds

SHARE