But it's saving energy and shaving a significant amount of greenhouse gases from the production of every barrel.
"Behind the scenes, the development of these technologies is always happening," said Vicki Lightbrown of Alberta Innovates, one of several partners in the project now being field-tested.
Lightbrown is one of many presenters at the World Heavy Oil Congress this week in Edmonton, where the technical showcase begins Wednesday. Environmental themes are prominent in the program as industry seeks to satisfy growing expectations from both the public and government regulators.
Progress is happening. But most acknowledge it's a slow and incremental process.
"Technology takes a long time to develop," said Lightbrown.
Her pilot project has been in development since 1992 and is likely another five years from readiness. Even then, it'll take the development of other technologies to allow it to work.
"It's really hard to find those game-changing technologies," she said.
What works in the lab may not work in a tailings pond. What works on one site may not work on another.
Sometimes, what looks like a solution may only create another problem. Drying out tailings ponds doesn't help if it creates clouds of contaminated dust.
And there's no point developing a technology that bankrupts the operator.
"It has to make financial sense," said Gillian Coates, an environmental engineer who will present a software system that allows users to make more accurate and efficient predictions on their water use.
"If a facility isn't cost-effective and it's not making money, there's no business decision to keep it running."
One reason solutions are so elusive is that they sometimes require new science. Tailings ponds are a good example, said Randy Mikula of Kalium Research.
"There really was a lack of knowledge about the behaviour of these fluid fine tailings," he said. "As a result, industry, government and university really got after that problem. There's still some gaps being filled in."
Things are improving, said Coates.
"I'm seeing a lot more collaborative efforts from industry," she said. "There's a certain magnification effect that is taking place."
A group of 13 oilsands operators came together in 2012 to form a consortium to share their best ideas and research on environmental innovation.
Lightbrown said the Energy and Environment Solutions branch at Alberta Innovates currently has about 100 projects on the go.
Part of the driving force behind the innovation is environmental concern.
"More and more there's environmental drivers," said Coates. "You need to have a much better feel for what your facility is doing."
But economics alone is enough reason for industry to keep striving for solutions to problems such as tailings ponds.
Building and operating a pond costs tens of millions of dollars, said Mikula. On top of that, the ponds are sitting atop and blocking access to valuable bitumen.
"They're covering up valuable oil and there's a serious economic driver to do something about that," he said.
"There's no doubt this problem is going to get solved."
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