Alberta oilsands companies say they will share research and technical information to speed up reduction and reclamation of the toxic tailings left over from oilsands mining.

Syncrude, Suncor, Total E& P Canada, Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Teck Resources and Canadian Natural Resources are the seven companies taking part in the initiative, announced Monday in Edmonton.

"We're confident that through this relationship, we can find ways to manage tailings and advance reclamation quickly and efficiently, " said John Broadhurst, vice-president of oilsands development for Shell Canada.

Tailings are the toxic byproducts of extracting bitumen, which is then upgraded into synthetic crude. Tailings are contained in large man-made lakes, and their impact on the environment has become a lightning rod for critics of the oilsands industry.

The initiative aims to reduce tailings and speed up the pace at which the natural areas where they are stored are reclaimed.

Each company has committed to:

  • Sharing tailings technical information with the industry, academics and regulators.
  • Collaborating on tailings research.
  • Removing monetary and intellectual property barriers that prevent companies from collaborating on tailings research and development.

The tailings information will be peer-reviewed and kept up to date.

"What we will see, I think, very quickly is experts from different companies brought to bear on other people's technologies," said Brian Schleckser from Syncrude. 

University of Alberta engineering professor Jacob Masliyah believes the announcement is more than just a public relations exercise for the oilsands industry.

"The progress in reclaiming the tailings ponds will be accelerated — even though we have the plan to do it down the road," he said. "It has been accelerated by 10 or 20 years, and that's good for the industry and good for the country, of course."

The Alberta government has asked oilsands companies to submit their plans for eventually reducing their reliance on tailings. But those are long-term plans that will take decades to accomplish.