Aug/Sept 2015

In hot water

Robert Fitzsimmons pioneered fundamental oil sands technology at Bitumount

By Correy Baldwin

Robert Fitzsimmons
Robert Fitzsimmons | Provincial Archives of Alberta, A3358

The first attempts to exploit the oil sands deposits in northern Alberta presented a conundrum to scientists, engineers and oil tycoons alike: how to separate the bitumen from the sand and refine it to crude oil? In the early 1900s, however, one struggling operation in the muskeg of northern Alberta persisted through years of creative engineering and economic setbacks to become the founda­tion of an industrial powerhouse.

Robert Fitzsimmons arrived in Alberta’s Athabasca Region in 1922, joining others who had come to the area to try to access the bitumen that sat just beneath the soil. He was an unlikely figure in the area: a Prince Edward Island native with no experience in the oil industry. But before long he was drilling wells, like everyone else, in a vain attempt to tap into the poorly understood deposits. For years he struggled to produce a commercially viable product until he heard about a pilot plant testing a new extraction method and went to see it for himself.

That test plant was run by Karl Clark, head of oil sands research at the publicly funded Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta. The oil sands were originally seen as a source of tar for roofing and road paving, but Clark had become convinced that crude oil could be extracted from the bitumen for use as fuel. By 1928, after working for nearly a decade on oil sands separation, he had come up with a process worthy of patenting: a hot water extraction process that still serves as the basis for oil sands extraction today.

Taking note of Clark’s process, Fitzsimmons used his limited resources and entrepreneurial spirit to build a crude version of his own at a site 89 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. His makeshift operation lacked the chemical additives and motorized equipment used at Clark’s plant, making it far more labour intensive and less efficient. The result was less than the finest quality crude, but it was crude nonetheless. Fitzsimmons made his first sale, took out his own patent and named his separation plant Bitumount.

His version of the process was simple: it involved crushing the bitumen ore and mixing it into hot water, stirring the slurry and then leaving it to settle. The sand would sink to the bottom, and the thick oil would rise to the surface to be skimmed off. The collected oil was then run through cold-water troughs to wash out any remaining sediments, and finally heated to evaporate the water. The whole process was done by hand. Even the mining of the bitumen was done with little more than horses to clear away the brush and overburden, and workers to manually dig out the bitumen sand. They then loaded it into barrels that were transported by wagon and dumped into Bitumount’s storage tanks.

Fitzsimmons set about trying to refine and expand his operation but ran into difficulties raising the necessary funds. With the Great Depression in full swing and American crude oil flooding the market, investors were leery of financing a fledgling oil sands operation. By 1937 Fitzsimmons had scrounged together enough money to construct a rudimentary refinery, but it was too little too late. He was soon broke, and Bitumount went up for sale. Lloyd Champion, an astute financier from Montreal, eventually bought the project in 1943.

Champion entered into an agreement with the Alberta government to build a demonstration plant at Bitumount based on Clark’s hot-water extraction process. The province hoped to prove that large-scale oil sands production was not only feasible, but a good investment. The government granted Champion $250,000 to construct a new plant and refinery, which the financier agreed to pay back over 10 years, at which point the operation would be his. Construction began in 1945, but costs tripled, hitting $750,000. Despite the progress he had made, Champion was forced to default.

The government took over, and the new industrial-scale plant went into production in 1948. They then hired Sidney Blair, an oil sands expert who began his career as Clark’s research assistant, to assess the operation. Blair published an enthusiastic report in December 1950, concluding that the oil sands were commercially viable.

The government set about promoting the oil sands, organizing an international conference of scientists, engineers and members of the oil industry that included a tour of Bitumount. The oil sands industry officially had a bright future ahead of it, though the plant itself was nearing its end. Having proved its viability, the government decided to exit the oil business. It shut down Bitumount in 1958, abandoning the site.

Nonetheless, Fitzsimmons’ efforts helped lay the groundwork for future oil sands producers. In 1964 Sun Oil began construction of its Great Canadian Oil Sands plant, using the hard lessons Fitzsimmons had learned. Now operated by Suncor, it would be the first commercial oil sands operation of many.

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