Photo courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Jim Carter, perhaps the most influential personality of the oil sands over the past 30 years, has retired from his long-time position as president and COO of Syncrude Canada Ltd. Credited as the driving force behind the success of the giant oil sands producer, Carter was instrumental in a number of the technology changes that enabled the growth of today’s major industry. With him at the helm, Syncrude has produced “over 1.3 billion barrels under my watch,” Carter said. Now, that’s something to be proud about.
A mining engineer by training, Carter has demonstrated a commitment to people and his community that matches his drive for low-cost, high-producing operations. He has been the recipient of a number of awards, and is recognized for his efforts to grow partnerships with aboriginal communities and businesses, as well as his dedicated service to the prosperity of the mining engineering program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
“It’s been a tremendous journey at Syncrude over the last 29 years,” Carter said. “I’m a miner by background, and the most intriguing part about the oil sands and Syncrude, in particular, has been the pioneering challenge to get such a huge operation like this to work in sync. We’re talking about the largest operations in the world here, in Fort McMurray - huge processing facilities, and so on. And it’s north of the 55th parallel, which offers its own interesting challenges. I’ve enjoyed a great deal of personal gratification from my work with Syncrude, and I foresee a real opportunity for success as Syncrude, and the oil sands, move forward.”
Looking to tomorrow, Carter said technology development will continue to be a key focus for the oil sands patch. One area developments are expected in the near future is reduction of transportation distances in the pit - with potential developments such as at-face mining. “Remember, in the oil sands, we mine as much waste as oil sands,” Carter said. “Systems currently being proposed will bring the operation close to face, reducing transportation distance. Overburden removal will continue to be done with truck and shovel, and much of the oil sands production as well, but these new methods demonstrate much potential for lowering costs of production.”
Carter said the oil sands industry will have some major challenges to address in the coming years. For starters, the industry needs the current government to reflect on what got the industry to its status today, “the support of past governments was necessary to unlock the potential of the oil sands,” he explained.
Another major challenge already facing the industry is the human resources capital required to undertake all the projects on the books - both construction and operations. “Syncrude’s success has lain with our highly trained, capable workforce,” Carter said. “We’ve enjoyed a low employee turnover for many years, but are undergoing a bit of a renewal now, as retirements are becoming more common.”
Another constant challenge is the demand for feed. At a rate of 30,000 tonnes per hour of oil sands processed, with the same amount of waste to be moved, that’s a major undertaking. “We produced 11 million barrels for the month of March,” Carter added.
Having multiple owners, all successful in their own right, has meant Syncrude was able to weather the storm when crude oil prices were low. Today, the industry is looking forward to high costs, with relatively flat prices, which means the oil sands players must continue their efficiency efforts.
“We always have to remind ourselves - in the commodity business, you must be able to manage costs,” Carter said. “I’m a firm believer in technology - look what’s happened to date. I believe Syncrude will continue to find new ways to extract oil from the sands while lowering costs going forward.”
Looking back over his career, Carter said he wouldn’t have done anything different, except possibly when it comes to public outreach. “We need to have industry better understood in the broader community - I’m concerned about that. We did try, but maybe not enough.”
Having lived in Fort McMurray for almost three decades, Carter plans to move south to Edmonton now. He will continue his work with the mining engineering program at the University of Alberta, and will sit on a number of corporate boards, such as Epcor. Most importantly, he plans to spend more time with his family. Retirement is a positive move for him, but as with any change, it’s an emotional journey.
“Any time you’ve been with an organization for almost a full career, leaving it is a big step,” he explained. “I leave with a bit of sadness. But I can also look back on my career, at how involved I’ve been - and I feel very good about that.”