Suncor Energy recycles toxic oil-sands runoff

19 June 2014Technology

Philippe de Montigny, writing for the Financial Post:

In what is seen as an industry first, Suncor Energy Inc. is recycling tailings water from surface mining at its oil sands plant to feed its nearby in situ operations in northern Alberta.

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Tailings ponds are currently used across the industry to dump leftover water, clay, sand, toxins and residual bitumen after oil sands processing. The water in these ponds contains toxic chemicals that endanger fish, birds and the surrounding ecosystem. The Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development reports that tailings ponds span more than 176 square kilometres, an area the size of the city of Vancouver.

Regardless of your opinion of Alberta’s energy industry, initiatives like this should be applauded. Short of shutting down oil sand development altogether – something that is highly unrealistic from both a political and economic perspective – reducing the environmental impact of existing and future projects is a feasible alternative.

While there is much that can and should be improved, this announcement highlights that the industry is not completely resistant to change.

Despite tripling production, Suncor halved its gross water withdrawal from the [Athabasca] river since 2004, with current withdrawals below 1998 levels. When its new wastewater treatment plant starts up this quarter, the company expects to see a 65% decrease in fresh water usage compared to 2007.

An impressive and encouraging statistic. What other industry has increased their efficiency by 600% over the past decade?