The year was 1967. The Beatles had just released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Actor Dustin Hoffman was making a name for himself as The Graduate. And Canada was celebrating its 100th birthday.
Great Canadian Oil Sands
This was also the year Suncor’s predecessor company, Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS), started producing commercial oil from bituminous sands using the sole extraction method available at that time: mining. The operation produced 45,000 barrels of oil a day, using drag lines to scoop out raw bitumen ore for processing. Compared to modern facilities, the GCOS operation was old school. Metal hardhats and Fred Flintstone-style lunch pails ruled the day, and the cry of “yabba dabba doo” isn’t hard to imagine at shift’s end.
The original oil sands mines used the best technology and operating practices available at the time. A mine’s energy efficiency or impact on fresh water and land were not top priorities, in accordance with expectations of the day.
Kearl oil sands project
Contrast the operations of yesteryear with the recent start-up of the first phase of the Kearl oil sands project. Jointly owned by Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil Canada, this facility demonstrates how much oil sands mines have changed since the early days.
Located 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, the project is one of Canada’s largest open-pit mining operations, initially producing some 110,000 barrels a day. Over the course of its 40-year lifespan, the project is expected to increase production to a whopping 345,000 barrels a day.
But it’s not the production numbers that make Kearl and other modern mines different from those built over four decades ago. The state-of-the-art technologies that underpin their operations show just how far oil sands production has come.
Modern technology, operating practices
Kearl and other newer mines use froth treatment technologies to more efficiently extract bitumen in a way that requires less water. All mines feature co-generation technology, which uses waste heat to generate power (a topic we’ve explored in a past OSQAR). Modern mines also have water recycling schemes to draw less fresh water from the nearby Athabasca River — just another step on the journey toward the best possible oil sands mining operations.
If today’s mines are huge improvements over their predecessors, the mines of the future promise to be even better.
Suncor’s proposed Fort Hills, Total’s planned Joslyn and Shell’s Jackpine mining facilities have all been designed to manage tailings and minimize land disturbances. Shell’s Quest project features the world’s first application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for oil sands development.
Just as yesterday is not a reflection of today, then why should today be a reflection of tomorrow? Changes for the better have been improving oil sands mining throughout its entire history. And with crude oil production from oil sands mines expected to increase, those changes couldn’t come at a better time.
As the Beatles noted on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album (side one, song four), “It’s getting better all the time.”