‘Revolutionary’ new oil sands mining process eliminates tailings ponds, lowers emissions by 40%, cuts costs

oil sands

Current extraction process at CNRL Horizon oil sands mine. Photo: CNRL

CNRL plans to share IPEP technology with other oil sands miners through COSIA

Alberta is a hotbed of oil and gas innovation, a story that is seldom told but could change the conversation around climate and energy policy if Canadians were more familiar with them. CNRL’s new oil sands mining technology, whose acronym is IPEP, is a great example of stories the industry should work harder to promote.

IPEP is short for In-Pit Extraction Process. Joy Romero, CNRL’s VP of technology, isn’t afraid to call it revolutionary.

oil sands
Joy Romero, CNRL VP of technology.

This is absolutely a game-changer on all fronts – environmental, cost, competitiveness, productivity. All of those points get hit by this technology,” she said in an interview, adding that IPEP was developed internally by company researchers, who modified existing mineral processing equipment.

Here’s how it works.

Instead of trucking bitumen to a central processing facility, the IPEP plant is located at the mine face and can be moved as extraction advances,.

“It’s a relocatable, modular extraction plant that moves as the mine face advances. Normally, extraction plants sit outside of the mine pit. This one actually fits inside of the mine pit,” Romero said.

“It hugely reduces material transport becuase you don’t have the transportation from the mine pit to a processing facility that can be several kilometres away.”

But that’s not the best thing about this innovation. The list of economic and environmental benefits is long and impressive.

For instance, and this really is a game-changer, with IPEP there are no more tailings ponds, what music icon Neil Young compared to post-atomic bomb Hiroshima after he flew over northern Alberta a few years ago.

“IPEP extracts from the mine face, separates some of the bitumen, drops the sand behind it, and generates dry, stackable sand,” that remains in the pit, said Romero. “That is a gigantic step forward.”

She notes that IPEG significantly lowers the company’s tailings pond liabilities, which must be reclaimed 10 years after the facility closes operation. Improved technologies have already reduced CNRL’s tailings ponds footprint by 50 per cent and water consuption by over 30 per cent, according to Romero.

“In combination with other work that we were doing on a go-forward basis, we will not have tailings ponds. We will not be generating tailings ponds at our facility,” which is currently being tested at the Horizon facility in a $46 million pilot project partly funded with $5.6 million from the provincial carbon levy administered by Emissions Reduction Alberta. 

Canada’s largest heavy crude oil producer estimates that greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by as much as 40 per cent.

“On our oil sands right now, we sit at approximately 5% greater than the US average barrel of crude [the benchmark against which crude oil carbon-intensity is measured]. IPEG will help bring us below an average barrel of crude,” Romero said.

If doing away with tailings ponds and dramatically lowering emissions isn’t enough, IPEP also shaves $2/b from operating expenses.

This is a key point for oil sands producers, who say they are committed to reducing energy inputs into bitumen extraction, which in turns helps them become more “cost-competitive” and “carbon-competitive.”

CNRL is “in the $20 a barrel range now,” Romero says, but points out that “it’s important to keep in mind that this is one project that will hopefully drive some good cost reductions, but certainly there’s lots of other activity that’s happening onsite in terms of operation efficiencies that contribute to cost reductions.”

Once the IPEP test project is completed, the company intends to share the technology through the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), an industry group that helps co-ordinate technology sharing and development between the major industry players in the areas of greenhouse gases, land, water and tailings.

“It will be available to other oil sands operators through COSIA, we have different opportunities to work this and we’re in the process of figuring out what that will look like,” she said.

Considered by itself, IPEP is impressive, perhaps even revolutionary, as Romero says.

But it’s particularly impressive within the broader context of the oil sands sector and its commitment to innovation. Every oil sands company is developing new technology to address emissions and other environmental issues, like tailings ponds, which are a blight on the industry and can’t be cleaned upon soon enough.

The fact that the new tech often lowers operating costs, too, bodes well for the future of the sector.

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