Adding chemistry to accelerate reclamation

First explored in the 1920s, Canada’s oil sands are the largest deposit of crude oil on the planet and a tremendously valuable resource. But there’s a catch: the unavoidable environmental challenges of tailings management, water reuse and land reclamation. Kemira is on the frontline as a partner to the operating companies, supporting them with world-class expertise and chemistry to help them address these issues.

Adding chemistry to accelerate reclamation

Covering an area of more than 140,000 square kilometers, the Canadian oil sands in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan are vast and valuable deposits of crude bitumen mixed in with sand, water and clay. In order to be awarded a license to operate, mine operators are required to adhere to a strict set of standards in terms of returning the mined area to an acceptable state at the end of its productive life, and detailed plans for this stage must already be in place before any project can be approved.

Our role is to understand what our customers are dealing with and how our expertise and chemistry can help.

Taking the sting out of the tail(ings)

Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) Environmental Priority Areas (EPAs) include for instance tailings, water and land. COSIA helps operators capture, develop, and share innovative approaches and best practices to improve environmental performance in these areas.

“The operating companies have to be 100% compliant in these areas,” says Ed Leong, Kemira’s Key Account Manager for the Oil & Gas sector in Canada. “The responsibility for addressing these challenges – and the costs that entails – lies with them. The operators’ key challenge is therefore to ensure that they meet or exceed all the legislative requirements in the most environmentally effective and financially efficient way possible. Our role as an expert partner is to work hand in glove with them to understand what they are dealing with and how our expertise and chemistry can help,” he continues.

Once the bitumen has been extracted, what’s left is known as tailings – a thick mixture with a yogurt-like consistency – made up of water, various solids, and chemical compounds. Tailings are typically directed to engineered dams called tailings ponds, and it is in dealing with this challenge that Kemira’s expertise and chemistry plays a vital role. “The reclaimed land has to be able to support a sustainable ecosystem and soil integrity has to be reestablished,” explains Ed.

“Getting to that stage means figuring out how best to dewater the tailings to speed up the solidification process and make it easier to build out infrastructure, plant trees, and so on. The water that’s extracted during this process also has to be treated to meet very strict standards if it is to be released into the environment.”

We can use our chemistry expertise to help accelerate the dewatering process.

A full-service chemistry partner for operators

As a leader in chemical water-treatment solutions and major global manufacturer of polymer flocculants and inorganic coagulants, Kemira is uniquely placed to support oil sands operators in meeting their environmental responsibilities. “The tailings are very challenging to deal with – they’re thick and hard to mix, which makes dewatering a tough task,” Ed explains. “Untreated tailings will only achieve a solids content somewhere in the region of 30 to 40% without chemical amendment and mechanical processes to remove the additional water, so help is needed. We can use our chemistry expertise to help accelerate the dewatering process.”

Added to this challenge is the fact that because no two ore deposits are the same, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. A knowledgeable partner is therefore a highly prized asset for operators in this sector. “There is no cookie-cutter approach here,” Ed highlights. “We’ve established successful relationships because we work hard to understand what the customer is trying to achieve, what their KPIs are, and which polymers or coagulants are right for their specific application. Our focus is very much on a partnership-building approach; our biggest successes have come from the closest collaboration,” he continues.

It’s as much about having a visible presence on site as it is about demonstrating our value.

Expert boots on the ground

Another powerful tool in the Kemira arsenal is its dedicated team of field-service experts, the boots on the ground supporting customers on the front line. “We recognized early on that when you have an application as challenging and unique as this, having technical expertise available in the field to observe, provide everyday support, and gather valuable insights about how to optimize and develop customer processes is exceptionally valuable. This is why we have a field service team placed in Fort McMurray,” Ed explains.

“It’s as much about having a visible presence on site as it is about demonstrating our value at the operational level. You wouldn’t invest in a brand-new car that had no servicing options or after-sales care, so why should chemistry be any different?”

In a matter of just a few years, this collaborative approach in the Canadian oil sands has established Kemira as a reliable, credible expert in the field. “We’ve gone from “Kemira who?” to being the go-to experts that people call when they need help with a question or challenge,” Ed concludes.


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