Canada’s Oil-Sands Producers Set to Re-Enter Evacuated Sites

Updated on
  • Mandatory orders lifted for all sites around Fort McMurray
  • Suncor, ConocoPhillips among those bringing back workers

All of the Canadian oil-sands facilities that workers fled last week as a wildfire spread are being allowed to prepare for restart as cool, humid weather has helped contain the inferno.

Alberta lifted mandatory evacuation orders for the last of the accommodation and production sites on Monday, which started the process of inspections by forestry and health officials to make sure they’re safe for workers to return. Since late Friday, the province has removed orders that had prevented all but critical staff from remaining on sites connected with the operations of Suncor Energy Inc., Syncrude Canada Ltd., ConocoPhillips and Cnooc Ltd.’s Nexen unit, among others.

Officials say industry facilities are no longer at immediate risk as firefighters take advantage of better weather to keep the flames at bay. Oil-sands operators took more than 1 million barrels a day of output offline this month as a wildfire forced the evacuation of workers and the shutdown of pipelines and power supplies. More than 80,000 people fled the blaze from Fort McMurray and surrounding areas initially, and another 8,000 workers were forced to clear out last week as the fire turned back north of the community, thwarting some production restarts.

“From the southern facilities to Suncor and Syncrude, we continue to secure the sites,” Chad Morrison, an Alberta wildfire manager, said Tuesday during a briefing with reporters. The fire is largely moving north and east, away from the oil-sands operations, he said. “The prevailing winds will be pushing that fire, most of the time, away from those facilities and we continue to put thousands of resources on it to hold it.”

Suncor, Canada’s largest energy company, has started mobilizing workers for a staged restart of its operations in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, according to a statement from the company. There has been no damage to Suncor’s assets, it said. The company had cleared out three sites that account for the bulk of its upstream production: the base plant mine, MacKay River and Firebag facilities.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc has begun ramping up output at its Albian Sands mine. “While the wildfires are still continuing to burn in the region, we are now able also to safely and securely start the mine again,” Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden said Tuesday at the company’s annual meeting.

Critical Staff

Syncrude, the joint venture controlled by Suncor, is making progress on a plan to return to operations and will be able to give an update later as to timing for production restart, Will Gibson, a Syncrude spokesman, said Monday in an e-mail. The company had evacuated all but critical staff from its Mildred Lake and Aurora mines.

ConocoPhillips had shut down production at its Surmont project south of Fort McMurray on May 5 and began the process of bringing workers back on Monday after getting approval. Some have already left for the site and by the end of the week about 350 people will have arrived, Rob Evans, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. There’s no estimated date yet for production restart. The project was producing at about 30,000 barrels a day before the blaze.

Athabasca Oil Corp., which shut down its Hangingstone project on May 5, resumed operations and expects the reservoir to re-pressurize to normal levels over the next several weeks with no long-term effects, the company said Tuesday in a statement. Hangingstone had been producing more than 9,000 barrels a day before the fire-related shutdown, the company said.

Dry Conditions

The Fort McMurray fire that began May 1 and destroyed about 10 percent of buildings in the energy town hasn’t grown in recent days, and the clearing of heavy smoke has allowed officials to get a better handle on its size. The blaze covered an estimated 5,229 square kilometers (2,019 square miles) on Tuesday, more than four times the size of New York City.

Firefighters may be battling the flames in forested areas for weeks or even months, given the dry conditions in a region that hasn’t received significant precipitation for more than two months, Morrison said. Another 1,000 firefighters are being brought in from the U.S. and as far away as South Africa in the coming weeks to help fight the inferno, he said.

The fire is expected to be Canada’s costliest disaster for insurers and is dealing a blow to Alberta’s energy-dependent economy, already reeling from a market downturn for oil. Evacuation orders remain in place for the communities of Fort McMurray and Anzac. The province has a phased re-entry scheduled for both communities, starting June 1.

While it’s expected that a boil-water advisory will be lifted in Fort McMurray by the end of June, meaning residents will be able to drink from their taps again, it will be years before other elements of normalcy are restored for residents, said Danielle Larivee, Alberta’s minister of municipal affairs.

“In terms of the long-term recovery of the community, of individuals and their mental health, there are a variety of things that are going to have to happen,” she said Tuesday at the briefing. “It will certainly be a long journey of many years.”