FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Nearly 50 years after the opening of Canada’s first major oilsands mine, the site on the banks of Alberta’s Athabasca River is an epicentre of energy, teeming with bustling workers amid signs of its pioneering past and cutting-edge future.
One of the mine’s upgraders — opened in September 1967 — turns heavy, sticky oilsands bitumen into light synthetic oil to ship to market. In the very near future, the ore containing that bitumen may be hauled by driverless trucks currently undergoing testing on site.
“Technology is a wonderful thing,” said Bill Bruce, general manager of mine production at the Suncor Energy Base Plant, located 24 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. “In some cases people are afraid of it, but if you don’t evolve as an organization or as people, you will be left behind.”
Canada’s oilsands are at a crossroads. Estimated to contain 166 billion barrels of crude recoverable with today’s technology, they are also loathed by environmentalists who fear their development will accelerate climate change. Other challenges include a carbon pricing regime, a cap on emissions, pipeline constraints and a flood of U.S. shale oil production that is weighing on prices.
Despite growing environmental outcry, oilsands production is expected to continue to grow in the years ahead, and so the industry is developing unique technologies to extract more black gold more efficiently while lessening its environmental footprint.
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