CALGARY – Alberta’s energy watchdog has agreed to reconsider a plan by Suncor Energy to clean up its tailings ponds so as to take into account new technology the oilsands giant plans to use.
The Alberta Energy Regulator in March denied the Calgary-based company’s plan for its Millennium mine. But the regulator said in a letter to a Suncor vice-president this week that it has reviewed the company’s request for reconsideration and decided that it would be appropriate in this case.
Tailings ponds contain waste resulting from oilsands extraction and contain water, fine clay particles, residual bitumen and other chemicals. Alberta Energy estimates oilsands mining projects had created about 220 square kilometres of tailings ponds by the end of 2013.
Suncor (TSX:SU) had proposed to treat 75 per cent of its Millennium mine’s tailings by clumping fine particles together and covering that material with fresh water.
In its rejection of the plan, the energy regulator called water-capping an unproven method and said more information was needed about its risks, benefits, alternatives and reclamation timelines.
The regulator now says it was not aware at the time of technology Suncor plans to use and it should be considered in an assessment.
The method involves using flocculants and coagulants to separate particles from water and to firm them up before placing them at the bottom of a mined-out pit.
The pit is then filled with fresh water and made into a lake that can support an aquatic ecosystem and recreation. Suncor aims to keep harmful chemicals trapped beneath the lake bottom for good.
“At the time the applications were filed, our evaluation of that process was still in development, so we couldn’t describe the process in great detail in terms of how it would work,” said company spokeswoman Sneh Seetal.
The regulator said it accepts Suncor’s explanation for why it couldn’t share details prior to getting a patent.
“The AER would ask that Suncor inform the AER of any such restrictions and potential delays so as to avoid this situation in future,” the letter reads.
“Given these unusual circumstances, the AER will reconsider the applications.”
The energy regulator introduced new rules last summer that require companies to have tailings ponds ready to reclaim within 10 years of the end of a mine’s life. Those rules replaced more stringent tailings pond regulations put in place in 2009 that the industry said it couldn’t meet.
Nina Lothian, a senior analyst at the clean-energy think tank Pembina Institute, said details about Suncor’s technology only address a small part of what was lacking in the company’s plan.
“It’s concerning that the AER reneged on their initial denial based on this one additional piece of information,” she said.
“The issues that were raised on the Suncor plan are actually endemic of all the tailings management plans that have been submitted by industry.”
Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said oilsands operators are proposing to use water-capping because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to deal with tailings.
“You just put more water on top of them and walk away and hope nature fixes it, but of course we don’t have any evidence to show that works,” he said.
“We’re creating this huge future environmental and financial liability for the Alberta and the Canadian taxpayer based on unproven technology.”