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'Goose bumps': CNRL develops oilsands mining idea that eliminates tailings ponds

An innovative technology for separating bitumen from sand could eliminate the need for tailings ponds, reduce GHG emissions and cut the cost of producing a barrel of oil.

In-pit extraction process produces dry tailings, reduces CO2 emissions and costs

This supplied photo shows CNRL's in-pit extraction process that uses a multi-platform processing facility to separate bitumen from sand right in the mine. (CNRL)

As rock-bottom oil prices dragged into 2016, a team of CNRL employees brought an idea to Joy Romero, vice-president of technology and innovation for the Calgary-based energy company.

They proposed a new technology that could change the way oilsands are mined, eliminating the need for tailings ponds, a controversial legacy of conventional oilsands mining.

The new technology could also save CNRL money.

Romero was intrigued and took a gamble.

"So basically it was 2016 and we all know the environment that we found ourselves from a cost point of view," Romero said in an interview with CBC News. "And we knew that we needed to do business differently."

The employees, led by process innovation manager Vince Wallwork, believed they could extract bitumen from oilsands and then reclaim the land immediately — not years later.

At CNRL's Horizon mine, 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, they built a multi-level mobile platform that could separate bitumen from sand, leaving behind dry tailings. The platform would finish work in one location before being moved to a new area in the mine.

The process — named the In-Pit Extraction Process — passed the first round of testing.

Not only could the technology eliminate the need for tailings ponds, CNRL found it also shaved at least $2 off the cost to produce a barrel of oil.

Moreover, it reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent because energy wasn't needed to truck or pipe mined oilsands back to a processing facility that was kilometres away.

"It just gives you goose bumps. It's a really special thing to see, to make this kind of difference," Romero said about the project. "It's a huge game-changer."

Project backed by $5.6M taxpayer grant

CNRL is about to participate in a larger, $46-million demonstration project that would process 500 tonnes of oilsands per hour, up from the 100-tonne per hour rate of the first pilot.

Steve MacDonald is the CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta. (David Thurton/ CBC)

In May, the company received a $5.6 million grant for the project from Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), which invests in promising technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The ERA's funding comes from the Alberta government's Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund.

Steve MacDonald, the ERA's chief executive, said CNRL has shown the new technology works. Now the company needs to prove it can work on a larger scale.

"The issue really is: Can it do it 24/7, 365 days a year?" MacDonald said. "And that's what we are trying to demonstrate and de-risk with our investment."

Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), which helps oilsands producers share their technological innovations with others in the industry, said the technology is an example of the innovation that's happening continuously in the oilsands.

Dan Wicklum, COSIA's chief executive, said CNRL is the first company to develop a way to eliminate the need for tailings ponds at the mining source.

"This is really sort of systems thinking, where we get out of the box of coming up with the best ways to treat tailings ponds. And we are moving to the space of not making tailings ponds to begin with," Wicklum said. 

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.