The mining and in-situ operations steaming bitumen out of the oil sands deposits are this country’s most impressive monuments to industrial innovation. The deposits themselves were easy enough to find. We have known about some of them for centuries. The most important discoveries came in the laboratories and field tests after years of hard work and valiant failures, as explored in this issue’s Mining Lore on the development of hot water extraction.
Oil sands researcher Karl Clark’s process unlocked the oil sands just below the muskeg in northern Alberta, but only after decades of work ironing out the details that would make mining those enormous deposits economically viable.
The industry struck an even bigger billions-of-barrels bonanza when horizontal drilling technology unlocked the potential of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Not long after the first SAGD wells at Cenovus’s Foster Creek began paying out, the magnitude of the country’s oil reserves shot through the roof.
These advances mixed with bubbling oil prices made for a good run. That run is now over and the focus on growth has shifted to productivity. The CFOs of some of the largest oil producers in Alberta echoed that message at an energy executives conference in New York in June when we began research for our annual oil sands feature, which became “Build muscle, burn fat” by Graham Chandler.
“We need to bring technology to the party, and so do contractors,” observed Paul Masschelin, Imperial Oil’s vice-president of finance and administration, at the event. More efficient labour, reduced water consumption and the use of solvent extraction techniques make up just some of the cocktail chatter about productivity.
If the last few years have shown the impressive size of the energy industry, the next few will depend on its agility and ability to develop, apply and refine the ideas that can win back some of those lost margins and public confidence that it can be an environmental steward. History is on its side.