Efforts by Canada’s oil sands industry to lessen its environmental footprint have resulted in globally significant work to reduce impacts to air, water and land and support biodiversity in Alberta’s boreal forest.
The industry aspires to be a world leader in environmental management.
Here’s one example of the work underway by Pathways Alliance companies: reducing waste.
Reducing waste a team effort
In 2017, a team of ConocoPhillips Canada employees at a remote work camp in northeastern Alberta asked themselves how they could reduce their personal impact on the environment. Their company was making great strides in minimizing the impact of its in situ bitumen recovery facilities on air, land and water. But the team thought employees could go a step farther and take personal responsibility for reducing their collective carbon footprint by managing waste better.
Surmont, 63 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray, Alberta, is a joint venture between ConocoPhillips and TotalEnergies. At any one time, it has up to 600 workers on site. Usually, work camp waste is stored and then trucked to regional landfills, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions both from the trucks and the landfills.
Fast forward six years and the employee-run Operations Waste and Liability Strategy (OWLS) Committee has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Not only have their waste reduction projects made a huge difference in a short time, but the grassroots drive for sustainability just keeps going.
Innovation in action
The OWLS team draws on people from across Surmont, including operations, maintenance, and contractors. One of the first things the team tackled was replacing disposable paper cups with reusable mugs. “Everyone used to have three or four coffees a day. We figured out if you stacked all those cups end to end it was probably enough to go twice around the world every year,” says Brendin Eshpeter, Shift Supervisor, who has been involved in OWLS since the beginning.
Not only did the first project prevent thousands of cups from being trucked to a landfill, it saved the company a significant amount of money too, about $100,000 a year.
With that success behind them, the OWLS team turned their focus to wood and cardboard recycling. “We used to burn all of our wooden pallets under permit and then haul the ash away for disposal,” Eshpeter says. Now, all wood is stockpiled and converted into wood chips and sawdust, which are recycled back into industrial processes as a bulking agent or used for erosion control on walking trails.
This project reduced waste to the landfill by about 256 tonnes a year.
The team set up a small facility to compact and bale cardboard, primarily from shipping boxes. Now, when there is enough for a truckload, the bales are shipped to a recycling facility in Edmonton and converted into paper towels and other toiletries. This initiative reduced landfill waste by 20 tonnes in three months and saves about 2,200 litres in transportation fuel each year.
Eliminating camp food waste
Next was an ambitious undertaking to completely eliminate camp food waste, which too is usually stored on site and trucked out. According to Eshpeter, it is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. After much research, the OWLS team partnered with Eco-Growth Environmental Inc. – a Calgary-based company that’s focused on providing green solutions to address environmental challenges. Eco-Growth had piloted technology that turns organic waste into biomass (plant-based material that can be used as fuel to produce heat or electricity) through dehydration.
The team liked what they saw and installed three Eco-Growth Organic Reactors on site. They were the first company to test the dehydrator technology on a large scale and at the beginning, Eshpeter says there were a lot of ‘trials and tribulations’. “It took us a good two years to get it to where it needed to be,” he says.
The reactor process shrinks waste volume by about 80 per cent and the end product can be used as part of an industrial process at the plant. This project proved so successful that, on the strength of it, Eco-Growth now sells commercial biomass dehydrators to companies across Canada. Meanwhile at Surmont, the reactors have reduced the volume of camp waste by about 235,000 kilos a year.
Heat from biomass fuel
In 2021, OWLS took the next step to leverage the biomass product as an energy source and installed a biomass boiler. “We saw the potential for free energy,” Eshpeter says. The boiler provides hot water for the kitchen and lunch areas and heats the warehouse too. Now, the team has its eyes on converting sewage sludge to biomass. And perhaps eventually a biomass-powered greenhouse to grow fresh vegetables for the camp kitchens.
Eshpeter credits the OWLS team with maintaining the momentum to find new ways to reduce emissions. “Anyone can pass their ideas to the OWLS team and we regularly brainstorm and pick the ones we want to tackle,” he explains, adding that the initiative has attracted a lot of enthusiasm and commitment from employees and contractors at the camp. The team does a thorough economic analysis of each project and obtains company approval before moving a good idea forward.
Proven benefits for remote sites
Based on OWLS success, ConocoPhillips is planning to replicate similar waste reduction initiatives at its other sites and the OWLS team has been asked to present their work to several Pathways Alliance members. “Every energy company has work camps; there are hundreds in the oil sands that could benefit,” Eshpeter says. The waste reduction projects OWLS has instituted could equally be used by townships and other remote communities too, he notes.
Learn more about the efforts of Pathways Alliance members to advance responsible development of the oil sands industry.