Canadian firm may have cure for oil sands headache

Tue Feb 24, 2009 6:09pm EST
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By Jeffrey Jones

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Alan Fair had been trying to solve the problem of oil sands tailings on and off for three decades, when 500 ducks died after landing on a pond of the waste at Syncrude Canada Ltd's Alberta site last spring.

Then the quest became more crucial for Fair, Syncrude's research and development manager. The incident attracted global criticism of the environmental impact of Canada's oil sands.

"There's no question it conveys a little more urgency around this, but we've recognized for some time that we have a tailings issue," he said.

Fair is in charge of testing a range of ways to halt the expansion of toxic tailings ponds and cleaning them up, from using centrifuges to separate the liquids from the solids to forming new lakes in mined-out pits.

But he is also open to ideas from outside Syncrude, the world's largest oil sands producer, like one from Gradek Energy Inc, a small firm with a unique technology aimed at cleaning up one of the industry's biggest headaches and a major reason why green groups have tagged the resource "dirty oil."

"It's really exciting because all of a sudden we're not trying to kick a door down. The door's open," Keith McCrae, Gradek's chief operating officer, said.

Privately held Gradek has talked to Syncrude for about eight years, and now aims to test its method in a pilot project with the oil sands producer's participation in August.

After development costs of about C$6 million ($4.8 million), a pittance in oil-industry terms, it has proven itself on a small scale, company founder Thomas Gradek said.   Continued...

<p>A truck drives down a street at Syncrude's oil tar sands operation near Fort McMurray, Alberta in this May 23, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Todd Korol/Files</p>