Sept/Oct 2010

Directive 74

Industry projects gain conditional approval on tailings management plans

By Marlene Eisner

As of early September, three of six companies have received conditional approval from Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) on plans submitted under Directive 74, an industry-wide set of guidelines issued in 2009 for managing oil sands tailings.

Directive 74 requires operators to prepare tailings plans and report annually on tailings ponds. As well, operators must reduce fluid tailings through fines captured in dedicated disposal areas, and convert tailings into trafficable deposits that are ready for reclamation five years after the deposits have ended. Specific enforcement actions can be taken against companies if tailings performance targets are not met.

This spring, the ERCB gave conditional approval for Syncrude’s Mildred Lake and Aurora North sites. Suncor gained similar approval for its Fort Hills oil sands project as well as its plan for the construction and operation of the company’s first commercial application in the oil sands of its new Tailings Reduction Operations (TRO) technology, designed to reduce fluid tailings volumes.

In August, the ERCB conditionally approved a tailings management plan for Imperial’s Kearl project, slated to begin operation in 2012, involving one tailings pond that will be decommissioned by 2038.

In the case of the Kearl project, Imperial was unable to meet Directive 74’s annual targets to reduce fine tailings because its new Tailings from Solvent Recovery Unit technology (TSRU) would take time to implement. In response to the delay, and as one of the eight conditions attached to the approval, the ERCB “has directed Imperial to submit an updated plan by January 2012 that evaluates alternatives and proposes measures to further accelerate fines tailings treatment.”

The same leeway for time constraints was given to Suncor for its TRO technology, due to the implementation and testing requirements. “The ERCB believes that the application of TRO will enable Suncor to reduce the volume of fluid tailings remaining at the end of the project life by 33 million cubic metres, or about 30 per cent,” said ERCB communications advisor, Davis Sheremata. He added that Suncor has committed approximately $450 million to TRO technology and other measures designed to improve tailings management to meet Directive 74 requirements. However, the ERCB has imposed two conditions, focused on coke conservation and sand disposal, in its approval of the tailings plan.

It has also placed two conditions on Suncor’s Fort Hills’ plan for one tailings pond with a storage capacity of 322 million cubic metres, which is expected to operate for approximately 22 years. Suncor Energy Ltd, UTS Energy Corporation, Teck and Fort Hills Energy Corporation are partners in the project, which is in the pre-construction stage and located 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Syncrude’s Mildred Lake and Aurora North sites have been approved, with six conditions on each project. Syncrude currently utilizes Composite Tailings (CT) technology to convert fluid tailings to a solid deposit, but the company’s original plans, filed on September 30, 2009, did not meet the ERCB requirements. After a series of consultations with the government agency, Syncrude made the changes necessary to allow it to meet and exceed Directive 74 requirements by 2014.

Syncrude has also proposed the addition of new technology to comply with Directive 74, which includes the full operation of a commercial demonstration plant for Mature Fine Tailings Centrifugation by August 2012, as well as the construction and startup of a full-scale supplemental tailings plant by June 2015.

The three remaining tailings plans still under review were submitted by Canadian Natural Resources Limited for its Horizon project and Shell for the Jackpine and Muskeg River projects.

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