Energy Resources Conservation Board Directive 074: Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes was released on February 3, 2009, setting out industry-wide performance criteria for the reduction of fluid fine tailings and the formation of trafficable deposits for all oil sands operators. Failure to comply with these new requirements could lead to enforcement actions from the Energy Resources Conservation Board.
Tailings are a waste by-product of oil sands extraction processes which are generally composed of water, sand, silt, clay and residual bitumen. Tailings are sent to tailings ponds where solids settle and water is recycled. Coarse solids settle rapidly, but fluid fine tailings can remain in suspension for several years, if not indefinitely. According to the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), Alberta’s inventory of fluid fine tailings requiring long term containment is now 720 million cubic meters. Although some test pits have been reclaimed, to date no tailings pond has been reclaimed in the Alberta oil sands.
The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (predecessor to the ERCB) and various joint review panels have expressed increasing concern for the overall tailings performance of the oil sands industry in their decisions. The concern with tailings management was elevated when approximately 500 ducks died after landing on a large Syncrude tailings pond in April 2008.
The ERCB responded to this issue by issuing a draft directive on “Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes” on June 26, 2008. After giving industry and interested parties the opportunity for input, the final directive was released on February 3, 2009 as Directive 074. The directive is the first component of a larger initiative for the ERCB to regulate tailings management.
Directive 074 applies to all existing, approved, and future oil sands operators. Operators must make submissions to the ERCB on how they will meet the new requirements. Requirements will be phased-in and adapted as approved by the ERCB, taking into account the particular circumstances of a project. Operators are also required to assess and compare their actual tailings performance against their approved tailings plans. Any significant changes to tailings management must be reported to the ERCB and may require an application for an amendment to the approval. Directive 074 requires operators to:
- Reduce fluid fine tailings by capturing a minimum amount of fines in Dedicated Disposal Areas (DDA). Fines are mineral solids with particle sizes equal to or less than 44 micrometres. The amount of fines going into liquid tailings must be reduced by 20% in 2011, by 30% in 2012, and by 50% in 2013.
- Form and manage DDAs to ensure the formation of trafficable deposits that are ready for reclamation five years after active deposition has ceased.
- Submit to the ERCB annual compliance reports for DDAs, annual tailing plans and pond status reports starting September 30, 2011. DDA plans must also be submitted two years prior to construction. Baseline surveys for DDAs and each fluid tailings pond must be reported by September 30, 2010.
Significance to Industry
To date, many oil sands operators have not met the fluid tailing targets set out in their applications. That will likely mean an additional cost to ensure compliance. The monitoring and reporting requirements under Directive 074 will also mean greater regulatory scrutiny over tailings management now and into the future. Directive 074 will also allow the ERCB to take enforcement action against companies that fail to meet industry-wide tailings management criteria. Enforcement actions range from non-compliance fees to increased inspections and suspension or cancellation of approvals. It is noteworthy that Directive 074 is performance-based, and gives companies the flexibility to choose the technology they prefer to achieve the performance criteria.