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Shell uses a warm water extraction process to separate the oil from the clay and sand. At our oil sands (mines) in Canada, we recycle and reuse roughly 80% of the water we use. Separating oil from sand leaves behind tailings, a mixture of water, sand and clay that we carefully manage.
Aerial photo of a tailings pond
At our Athabasca Oil Sands Project in Canada in 2014 we used approximately 1.14 barrels of river water from the Athabasca River for every barrel of bitumen extracted from our mining operations. This was supplemented by groundwater, precipitation and connate water (water that forms part of the ore) as part of water recycling. We recycle all water recovered from this extraction process, but need fresh water to replace the water that evaporates.
Cleaning waste water
When we extract oil from the oil sands a mixture of water, coarse sand, silt and clay particles, and residual oil is left behind. This mixture, known as tailings, is stored and carefully managed. Tailings are integral to our mining operation, as they allow us to recycle water from tailings ponds.
Over time we dry the tailings, leaving solids that will become the foundation for future landscapes.
We manage tailings carefully to minimise risks to wildlife and the surrounding environment. Residual bitumen floating on the surface can be a risk to waterfowl if landing in a tailings facility. Tailings are monitored continuously and sophisticated bird-averting technology is used to discourage birds from landing there.
We operate a system to deter birds from landing on tailings ponds.
Alberta regulations require that land which is disturbed must be reclaimed - for example, through re-vegetation or reforestation - to a capability equivalent to what existed prior to development. Dried tailings can be blended and treated to produce material suitable for use in land reclamation.
While the sand in tailings settles easily and the water is consistently recycled, the tiny clay and silt particles called fines (or "fluid fine tailings”) can take many years to settle, increasing the time required to reclaim tailings as well as the space needed to store them.
Several technologies are being explored and developed to treat fluid fine tailings. Since 2005, Shell has invested $600 million in tailings research to develop technologies to speed up the drying process.