After a 5-year review, provincial regulators approve Syncrude's plan to extend Mildred Lake operations

After a 5-year review, provincial regulators approve Syncrude's plan to extend Mildred Lake operations

Late last week, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) approved Sycrude's Mildred Lake Extension Project (MLX), located about 35 km northwest of Fort McMurray.

MLX consists of two new mines — Mildred Lake East (MLX-E) and Mildred Lake West (MLX-W) — which will be extensions of Syncrude's existing Mildred Lake operations. 

Syncrude's North Mine is currently the only active mine site at Mildred Lake, and is expected to be depleted by mid-2020. Once depleted, MLX-E and MLX-W are expected to come into service, replacing existing production. The extension does not require a new tailings pond or processing plant, and will not require additional fresh water from nearby rivers. Feed from the new mines will be trucked to the existing Mildred Lake facilities.

MAP COURTESY SYNCRUDE

Mildred Lake has a stream day bitumen production capacity of 184,000 bbl/day, not including volumes from Aurora North, accounting for about 50% of the feedstock into the Syncrude upgrader.

MLX holds an estimated 730 million barrels of bitumen, extending Mildred Lake's mine life by about 14 years. Access to the west mine will require the construction of a new bridge across the MacKay River. The section of Highway 63 that runs parallel to the Mildred Lake Reservoir will also need to be relocated, looping around the east side of MLX-E, closer to the Athabasca River.

Reclamation plans for the new mines include mostly reforested areas and some wetlands. Wetlands currently make up most of the landscape, with remaining lands consisting of brush and trees. The AER continues to express concern over the company's reclamation plans, and has asked for an updated Tailings Management Plan, to be submitted before 2023.

Syncrude submitted its Environmental Impact Assessment for MLX to the AER in 2014, and had originally expected to hear back by the end of 2017. Given its close proximity to the community of Fort McKay (about 10 km from the northern border), all parties agreed to hold a public hearing. Several stakeholders, including Fort McKay and Mikisew First Nation, settled their concerns with Syncrude, withdrawing their respective plans to attend the hearings. Hearings with all other concerned parties began in late January 2019, and wrapped up by the end of March.

Mining in the west pit was originally planned to begin in 2023. At the time of submission, MLX was estimated to cost $3.3 billion and was expected to generate up to $16 billion in provincial royalties over its 14 years of operation.

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