Shell Tests Process for Speedier Oil Sands Clean-Up

by | Aug 27, 2010

Royal Dutch Shell Plc has started a demonstration project to test a new method of speeding up reclamation of toxic waste ponds at oil sands operations, reports Reuters.

Shell, which operates the 155,000 barrel a day Athabasca Oil Sands Project in northern Alberta, told Reuters it received regulatory approval this month for a commercial-scale test of its “atmospheric fines drying” (AFD) technique for cleaning up tailings ponds, according to the article.

Reuters describes the tailings ponds as man-made lakes that hold water, leftover bitumen, clay and heavy metals from the oil sands production process. These waste ponds have become a major source of contention between environmentalists and oil companies.

Shell’s new technology converts oil sands tailings the consistency of motor oil into solid soil, reports The Globe and Mail.  The technology, which cost the company $30-million to develop, can process somewhere between 1 and 20 percent of the company’s mature fine tailings.

Clean-up has become a challenge for the industry since it has already produced more than 170 square kilometers of tailings lakes, according to the article.

Another driving factor behind the development of new clean-up processes is new rules that call for oil companies to dry out some of the effluent so it can be planted into forests and wetlands.

Shell is offering all the technical data on the new process for free to anyone, including competitors, reports The Globe and Mail.

John Abbott, Shell executive vice-president of heavy oil, said in the article that AFD is not a “silver bullet” but will be one of its solutions. The company hopes this commercial plant will provide more answers as to the effectiveness of AFD.

Suncor Energy, which has developed its own new drying technology, said it will both reduce its tailings pond requirements and save money. The company also has pledged to meet the requirements of Alberta’s Directive 74, which requires oil sands companies to dry out 50 percent of their fine tailings by 2013, according to The Globe and Mail.

Suncor said in its latest sustainability report that the company expects to see more land available for reclamation more quickly with the introduction of its TRO (Tailings Reduction Operations) process.

Imperial Oil was recently granted approval for a clean-up plan that won’t comply with Alberta’s rules until 2018 and Shell’s plan has not yet been approved.

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