Suncor: Mitigating Water Impacts in Canada's Oil Sands
The majority of Suncor’s water use impacts are related to the storage of mining-waste products, referred to as tailings, which traditionally have been disposed of in large ponds.
For Canadian oil sands producer Suncor, water management has long been an area of focus and concern. Through operational improvements and capital investments in water efficiency and reuse, the company decreased its water use intensity 40% between 2003 and 2010. Nevertheless, the majority of Suncor’s water use impacts and risks are related to the company’s storage of mining waste products, referred to as tailings, which traditionally have been disposed of in large ponds.
Each tailings pond that goes unreclaimed after mine closure is a liability due to long-term operational costs related to monitoring and treating water. As the company grew, these liabilities clearly mounted. At the same time, the water stuck within these tailings ponds represents an asset that could be recycled to offset freshwater use needed for mining operations.
Suncor has been researching, developing and testing its proprietary "TRO" tailings management process, which is expected to allow it to reclaim entire mine sites in a third of the time it now takes. The company plans to invest over $1 billion by the end of 2011 to implement the TRO process across all of its operations and anticipates reducing the number of tailings ponds in operation at its current mine site from eight to only one—an 80% reduction in land area covered by tailings ponds. Additionally, the company expects to reduce the environmental liabilities associated with its tailings ponds.
Although Suncor has an existing goal to reduce water use by 12% on an intensity basis by 2015, it now believes that it can exceed this goal through further investments in freshwater reuse and access to the water “unlocked” from reclaimed tailings ponds.
The company also sees opportunities for the oil sands industry to more quickly advance tailings cleanup and increase water reuse. In December 2010, Suncor and six other oil sands companies committed to share their existing research and technology, and to work to remove barriers to collaboration on future R&D projects related to tailings management. Suncor, for its part, is now sharing its TRO technology with industry competitors as well as university and government scientists so the environmental benefits of the innovation can be maximized.