Sept/Oct 2007

Voices from Industry

Mining’s contributions to society

By J. Carter

Having retired in May from a rewarding 36-year career in the mining and oil industries, I would like to share some reflections on my work-life experiences.

There is much debate these days about the rate of pace of resource development and the positive or negative effects on our society. As CIM members, I believe it is incumbent on us to get some important facts out to our friends, colleagues, business associates, and elected officials to achieve more balance in public opinion.

I spent the last 27 1⁄2 years with Syncrude Canada Ltd. and served ten years as president and chief operating officer. Before my oil sands involvement, I spent 5 1⁄2 years in mountain coal mining in Grande Cache, Alberta.

One of the many great things about Canada is the vastness of our natural resources and particularly our mineral wealth. In mining, Canada is rich in coal, uranium, iron ore, copper, lead, zinc, nickel, diamonds, and gold, not to mention the vast reserves of oil in Alberta’s Athabasca oil sands and conventional oil and gas.

The recent strong run in commodity prices is playing a significant role in driving the buoyant Canadian economy. Unemployment in Canada is at historically low levels and the Canadian dollar has recently seen its highest level in 30 years.

By virtue of the multiplier effect on other sectors of the economy, just about every region of Canada either directly or indirectly benefits from resource industry investment. The mining industry alone in this country employs approximately 400,000 people and accounts for about 60 per cent of all rail transportation revenue and about 70 per cent of all seaport volume. The mining industry also accounts for approximately four per cent of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product. It is also an industry that over the past two decades has demonstrated significantly stronger productivity gains than many other industries due in part to research and development spending and capital investment, enabling its current economic impact. The industry also provides good, solid employment opportunities. It has provided opportunities for visible minorities, particularly Canada’s First Nations people, partially due to the location of many northern mining operations, but also because this industry was one of the first to realize the benefit of this largely untapped human capital pool.

The industry also has a track record of developing and implementing more environmentally beneficial and cost-effective processes and equipment. Several examples are as follows:

The integrated mining and upgrading oil sands operations in Fort McMurray have demonstrated a dramatic reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions over the last 15 years by implementing scrubber technology. In fact, Syncrude, through the addition of ammonia, is converting SO2, a former waste stream, into ammonium sulphate fertilizer for the agricultural market.

Water conservation practices applied in the oil sands have reduced the water consumed per barrel of oil produced dramatically with Syncrude demonstrating reductions of 60 per cent over the past five years.

In another example, the economies of scale of larger haul trucks in oil sands, coal, copper, and iron ore mining have greatly reduced the fuel required to move ore and waste, resulting in lower carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions as well as lowering the cost of production.

As a final example, I cite the latest leading-edge technology for coal-fired electricity generation implemented by Epcor at the Genesee 3 generator. Pulverized coal is used to generate supercritical steam at 3,600 pounds per square inch, which drives energy efficient turbines that generate electricity with 20 per cent lower CO2 emissions than previously available technology. Future opportunities for coal-fired power generation will likely employ coal gasification, which will enable steam turbines and gas turbines to be driven by the same fuel source while carbon dioxide is sequestered for enhanced oil recovery from conventional oil reservoirs.

As an engineer with many years of experience, I am a firm believer in the power of technological advancement. Technology development and application will enable Canada to continue to reap the benefits of our vast natural resources while at the same time enabling good stewardship of the environment.

There are some naysayers that are against forms of energy like oil from the Athabasca oil sands and coal-fired electric power. It is interesting to note that the energy represented in Canada’s coal deposits outweighs all other forms of hydrocarbon energy including the massive oil sands deposits.

To those who would like to relegate these forms of energy to the back-benches, I say “We can do this!” Through science and engineering we can continue to support a strong Canadian economy and be good stewards of the environment. As CIM members and Canadians with a vested interest in the outcomes, please join me in the crusade.

Jim Carter is past president and COO of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

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