|Art Morris, Tom Keating and Ken Partington
Oil Sands Workers
When people think of oil, they normally think of oil wells.
But oil sands producers are not conventional explorationists requiring discovery dollars. The bitumen-rich sands of Athabasca are a known quantity - and their producers are miners, not diviners.
As their name implies, the Athabasca oil sands are huge ore bodies of compacted sand. The bitumen is generally found within 30 metres of the surface beneath bedrock muskeg and a layer of clay, silt and gravel.
In 1719, the Cree Indian Wa-pa-su guided the first explorers to the Athabasca oil sands, near Fort McMurray. It was not until 1778 that Peter Pond actually reported the presence of oil sand outcroppings along the Athabasca River.
In 1920, the Alberta government established the Research Council of Alberta to find an economic use for the oil sands. Ten years later, a pilot plant at Fort McMurray produced a small quantity of oil using the extraction methods of the Research Council's Dr. Karl Clark.
In the late 1960s, commercial quantities of oil were recovered from the Athabasca oil sands. Great Canadian Oil Sands, later to become Suncor Canada Inc., began commercial production in 1967 after four years of site and plant construction. A synthetic oil pipeline was built and houses were erected in Fort McMurray to accommodate the enormous influx of new employees.
In fact, when Suncor began construction, Fort McMurray was a mere village with a population of less than 1,000. Within 15 years, the village grew into a modern town of 25,000 people.
In the 25 years since Suncor's start-up, a total of four giant bucketwheel excavators have been used to mine oil sands. In 1991, Suncor produced a record 22 million barrels of synthetic crude oil from these known reserves. In future years, Suncor will introduce new and more competitive mining methods with a system of trucks and shovels to replace the gigantic bucketwheels of the past few decades.