Regional Water Management
Recycling tailings water between oil sands mining and in situ operators in the Lower Athabasca River Watershed is part of a larger Regional Water Management Solutions (RWMS) project.
This project is being considered to economically improve the regional environmental net effect of water used throughout the oil sands region by balancing water use, greenhouse gas production, land disturbance and waste produced.
The biggest opportunity that the RWMS identified is recycling water from oil sands surface mining operations (i.e. tailings pond water) to reduce groundwater currently used as make-up water to generate steam at most in situ operations. Tailings water is becoming available at mining operations due to the development of advanced tailings technologies like TROTM and consolidated tailings (CT).
To determine the feasibility of using tailings water to generate steam at in situ facilities, OSLI conducted screening tests over a six-month period in 2010-2011 at its Tailings Water Treatment Pilot Plant, constructed near Fort McMurray. Tests were conducted on water treatment processes used by other industries, as well as leading-edge technologies, including: filtration, membrane, biological and oxidation technologies.
In addition to water treatment testing, the RWMS project:
- developed a conceptual design and cost estimate of the pipelines and facilities required to treat the water and connect OSLI operators;
- developed an environmental net effects tool to measure and evaluate the water, air and land disturbance footprint of proposed alternatives;
- developed an economic model to assess the commercial viability of the various project configurations; and
- identified regulatory requirements, timelines and potential risks.
Co-operation among the oil sands operators in developing the Regional Water Management Solutions project is intended to produce a more economically attractive solution with lower environmental impact and a high degree of security of make-up water supply and tailings water disposal. The project is also intended to reduce industry’s current water use and increase overall water recycling by expanding water reuse across mining and in situ operations throughout the watershed. About 75 to 80 per cent of water used by mining operations is now captured as wastewater, treated and reused at their own operations, with fresh water from the Athabasca River being used to make up for water lost to tailings. In situ oil sands operations recycle approximately 85 to 95 per cent of water used, and use fresh or saline groundwater to make up for water losses.
OSLI has focused its activities on completing a variety of studies and developing tools to further define the scope of this project. Studies have indicated that a five-company solution is not economically feasible, however, OSLI is working toward a larger regional initiative with more industry partners to develop a sustainable solution for water management in this region.