Committee launched to help reclaim oil sands tailings ponds

Alberta’s new Oil Sands Mine Water Steering Committee will look at options to speed up oil sands mine water management and tailings ponds reclamation.

Oil sands tailings ponds are a mixture of water, sand, clay and residual bitumen and are the byproduct of the extraction process used to separate the oil from sand and clay. Todd Korol, Cavan Images photo.

The Alberta government is launching an Oil Sands Mine Water Steering Committee in what the Smith government describes as an effort to speed up the reclamation of oil sands tailings ponds.

According to a press release, the expert committee will study potential policies and measures for and suggest options that would best allow for reclamation to occur as quickly and safely as possible. The government says it will use the committee’s work to create an accelerated plan to reclaim the water in oil sands tailing ponds and eventually return the land for use by future generations.

“Managing oil sands mine water and reclaiming tailings ponds is a complex issue that requires collaboration,”‘ said Rebecca Schulz, Minister of Environment and Protected Areas. “This committee will look at all the feasible options for addressing oil sands mine water and tailings ponds and suggest ways to safely reclaim the land and ensure our waterways remain clean for future generations.”

Oil sands tailings ponds are a mixture of water, sand, clay and residual bitumen and are the byproduct of the extraction process used to separate the oil from sand and clay.  According to the Alberta government, the Oil Sands Mine Water Steering Committee will be supported by an independent facilitator external to the provincial government.

The committee is expected to determine which options are feasible based on available technology, alignment with existing policies, environmental and community impacts, economics, infrastructure needs and liability implications.  It will also suggest multiple opportunities to address oil sands mine water based on their analysis of existing research and what they hear from industry, Indigenous communities, governments and others.

The government concedes that the oil sands tailings ponds likely cannot be addressed through just one solution. To date, the Smith government says significant technical research and analysis has been conducted by industry, as well as the province’s Oil Sands Mine Water Science Team.

There have also been past discussions with local Indigenous communities on this issue, and the Crown-Indigenous Working Group for the Potential Oil Sands Mining Effluent Regulations has issued several reports examining different options. However, no clear consensus has been identified and research is still emerging.

The steering committee is expected to evaluate a wide range of options for addressing oil sands mine water and reclaiming tailings ponds in an accelerated timeframe.

The steering committee will review all relevant research and engage with communities, industry and governments to ensure that many perspectives and potential solutions are considered. The Alberta government says more information will be shared in the coming months on how the public can submit technical information. All viable solutions to this challenging issue will be considered.

“This is an important step forward to responsibly address oil sands mine water and reclaim tailings ponds more swiftly and effectively.” said Tany Yao, MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo.

Members of the Oil Sands Mine Water Steering Committee include:
  • Chief Jim Boucher, AOE, President, Saa Dene Group of Companies, former chief of Fort McKay First Nation.
  • Mohamed Gamal El-Din, PhD, engineering research chair and director of the Water Research Centre at the University of Alberta
  • Andrea Larson, researcher and retired Alberta Energy Regulator employee with experience in oil sands mining
  • Alan Reid, retired oil and gas executive with experience with the Pathways Alliance, Cenovus Energy and others
  • Lorne Taylor, PhD, former chair of Alberta Water Research Institute, former chair of the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Evaluation and Reporting Agency, and former provincial minister of Science, Research and Information Technology; Innovation and Science; and Environment.
  • Tany Yao, MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo

Since 2017, oil sands mining operations have reduced the amount of fresh water used per barrel by 23. per cent.  The Government of Alberta say all oil sands operators came in below their approved volume limits in 2022.

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