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A decommissioned tailings pond in the Suncor Oil Sands.Ian Willms for Report on Business magazine

Canada has staked its future on the oil sands. In November, Report on Business magazine together with Thomson Reuters examine what that means both at home and abroad. Read more from the issue at tgam.ca/oil.

Carbon capture and storage

Who's doing it Royal Dutch Shell

What's at stake According to Environment Canada, the oil sands produced 61 megatonnes of CO2 in 2012, or just under 9 per cent of our industrial CO2 emissions.

How it works At its Scotford upgrading and refining facility, Shell (with generous support from Edmonton and Ottawa) plans to launch the first carbon capture and storage project in the oil sands, in 2015. Quest, as it's called, is expected to reduce Scotford's emissions by roughly 35 per cent. Shell intends to compress and dehydrate the CO2 created during the upgrading process and pipe the resulting liquid 80 kilometres north, where it will be injected into a porous rock formation two kilometres beneath the Earth's crust. The intervening layers of shale and rock salt are an impermeable barrier that will, theoretically, trap the CO2 forever.

Eliminating water use

Who's doing it Imperial Oil

What's at stake A potential 95 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions from the extraction process (at certain oil sands projects).

How it works After two decades of research and testing, Imperial flipped the switch earlier this summer on its "cyclic solvent process" pilot project near Cold Lake. Instead of coaxing bitumen out of the ground with steam, Imperial is shooting solvents–propane and light oil–down its wells. The solvents help separate bitumen from the sand after a "soak period," and are then pumped to the surface up the same wellbore. If Imperial can realize its projected 95 per cent emissions reduction, it might have the rare right to trumpet the process as a game-changer.

Reusing tailings water

Who's doing it Suncor Energy

What's at stake Oil sands producers used about 170 million cubic metres of water in 2011, according to the Pembina Institute–roughly equivalent to the residential water use of 1.7 million Canadians.

How it works Suncor is piping the toxic tailings water created by its mining projects to its in-situ operations, where it is used to create the steam necessary to extract bitumen. Suncor is trying to expand the project, by allowing competitors to use water from its tailings ponds in their own operations.

Carbon dioxide in tailings

Who's doing it Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

What's at stake Toxic tailings ponds take many decades to return to their natural state.

How it works Carbon dioxide is already injected into tailings pipelines at CNRL's Horizon project, speeding up the time it takes for clay, sand and silt to settle, a prerequisite before land reclamation can begin. CNRL is taking the process a step further, with special equipment that processes tailings even more: Before shipping them to the pond, machines separate some of the water from the rocks and clay. After a couple shots of CO2 and more mixing, the remaining slurry is piped to the pond, where some of the rocks and clay form beaches and some are left to settle naturally. A portion of the water is reused. Decades from now, the rest of it will be removed and the area reclaimed.