CALGARY – The threat posed by the wildfire that shut down 1.2 million barrels of daily oilsands production has not completely passed, but oilsands companies have begun sending crews back up to northern Alberta to prepare to restart their facilities.
Teams from Suncor Energy Inc., Syncrude Canada Ltd., Athabasca Oil Corp. and ConocoPhillips Canada are either en route to, or on the ground at, oilsands projects around Fort McMurray preparing to start pumping oil once again.
“This is the first time that we’ve completely shut down our operations since we started production in 1978, so it is something without precedent and this is why we’re assessing it very carefully because we want to do it safely and we want to do it right,” Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson said Tuesday.
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Gibson said the company would send several hundred more employees up to its facilities north of Fort McMurray in the coming days to assess equipment, and prepare for a return to normal operations, though he did not give a date for when production would resume.
“Before we send anybody up there, we already have plans in place to safely evacuate them should the situation change,” Gibson said.
The fire that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray and those surrounding oilsands facilities continued to burn out of control on Tuesday afternoon, but officials said it was at least burning away from the multi-billion-dollar oilsands facilities — though the provincial government warned conditions could change quickly.
“This fire is not under control by any means, so while the fire continues to spread to the north and northeast, away from these facilities and the community, there always is that potential (for the fire to threaten the oilsands again),” Alberta Wildfire senior manager Chad Morrison said Tuesday.
Many large oilsands project in the region have now been shut down for more than two weeks, and a Tuesday report form BMO Capital Markets said the fire could cause Canada’s economy to contract by one per cent.
Like Syncrude, ConocoPhillips has sent teams to their Surmont oilsands project, which it jointly owns with Paris-based energy giant Total S.A. The company did not have a timeframe for re-starting production at the facility south of Fort McMurray.
“For this summer, I don’t think anybody can say we’re in the clear, but the closest hot spot to us is 55 kilometres away,” ConocoPhillips spokesman Rob Evans said. “Our plan is to have about 350 personnel on site by Friday, and then basically start the re-start program.”
Two weeks ago, on May 10, top executives from oilsands producers in the area met with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley to develop a plan for re-starting normal oilsands operations after the threat of the fire had subsided.
Following that meeting, however, dry conditions and heavy winds pushed the fire back northward, and forced the evacuation of oilsands camps and facilities between Fort McMurray and Fort McKay.
The province lifted the mandatory evacuation order covering that area on Friday and now companies are once again preparing to restart production — this time around, however, officials from the government and the companies believe there are sufficient fire breaks in place.
“Given our current assessment, we are confident we can safely return people to the region to begin the process of restarting operations,” Suncor president and CEO Steve Williams said in a release.
The company noted that there are few trees and combustible materials to fuel a fire close to the company’s operations.
Alberta Wildfire’s Morrison said that firefighters have also built significant fire breaks in the area in an attempt to contain the flames, and added that 1,000 reinforcement firefighters were on their way to Alberta from across Canada, the U.S. and from South Africa.