Wildfire’s return stalls recovery plans for Fort McMurray oilsands industry

Plans to quickly restart oilsands production in northern Alberta were turned upside down Tuesday after the Fort McMurray wildfire erupted with renewed vengeance, forcing thousands of workers to scramble to safety.

CALGARY — Plans to quickly restart oilsands production in northern Alberta were turned upside down Tuesday after the Fort McMurray wildfire erupted with renewed vengeance, forcing thousands of workers to scramble to safety.

Oilsands miners had been gradually returning staff to the area to begin the process of resuming production at facilities undamaged by fire but shut down because of the threat.

However, a change in wind direction sent the rapidly moving blaze north toward oilsands projects Monday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of about 8,000 workers from more than a dozen work camps, according to provincial officials.

Brion Energy, a company owned by Chinese giant PetroChina, said it evacuated 106 people from two work camps at the construction site of its MacKay River thermal oilsands project.

The company had reduced its workforce from about 400 to 32 as a precautionary measure about two weeks ago but it began bringing them back in the past week as the fire moved farther away, said Brion spokeswoman Kristi Baron.

Baron said the fire’s change of direction came as a surprise and will likely delay first production.

“We were nearing mechanical completion and aiming for first steam in the fall — until the fire,” she said.

“We expect the fire to have some kind of impact on project timing but at this point it’s kind of hard to know.”

Syncrude Canada said more than 200 of its workers who were part of a team that was supposed to restart production were moved twice on Monday — first from a work camp to its Mildred Lake mine north of Fort McMurray, then by bus to Edmonton when the evacuation order was extended.

About 100 employees were left to maintain and stabilize operations at Mildred Lake and Syncrude’s Aurora mine site 35 kilometres farther north, said spokesman Will Gibson.

Suncor Energy said Monday night it was moving personnel from work camps and its base plant to other camps farther north, adding that it had started a staged and orderly shutdown of base plant operations.

On Tuesday, the company also evacuated its Firebag and MacKay River thermal project sites as winds pushed the fire closer.

“We have enhanced fire protection and mitigation around all of our facilities and we do have experienced industrial firefighters on site,” said spokeswoman Sneh Seetal.

In Ottawa, Natural Resource Minister Jim Carr said he’d speak again with oil company representatives in the next day or two but had no update on what the changing fire conditions implied for the resumption of production.

“It’s important that the production come back on line and they were in good shape until these blazes began to reform,” Carr said. “We’re watching it very carefully.”

He said the industry has not asked for federal assistance.

Premier Rachel Notley said the oilsands companies know best when to restart their operations and the province will work with them to ensure that is done safely.

She said it’s too early for the provincial government to adjust its budget in light of reduced oilsands royalties.

“I think you have to have actual numbers in order to rewrite your fiscal plan, so that’s what we’re going to do, is wait till we have those.”

Earlier Tuesday, the Conference Board of Canada released a study on the anticipated economic impact of the fire, though that was before the change in the fire’s direction and based on the presumption that production would be back up by the end of the month.

The report estimated average oilsands output would fall by 1.2 million barrels of oil a day for two weeks, translating into $985 million in lost gross domestic product.

“As far as I understand, most of the evacuations have been preventative, so it’s still possible we will see production ramp up as expected,” said Pedro Antunes, deputy chief economist with the conference board.

The board expects rebuilding efforts to add roughly $1.3 billion in real GDP to Alberta’s economy next year and construction in the region is expected to be higher than normal in 2018 and possibly 2019.

The economic issue identified by the board is “big and it is serious,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said.

“It will clearly have a dampening effect on the economy,” he said, though he added it is premature to calculate the fiscal impact on the federal budget.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer Public Schools says that in the absence of additional funds from the provincial government, there was no consideration of using alternate classroom sites in the district. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Red Deer Public Schools launches online engagement process

Red Deer Public schools is seeking community input to help ensure a… Continue reading

Red Deer Rebels defenceman Mason Ward battles with a Medicine Hat Tigers’ forward during the WHL Central Division season opener. (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Tigers come back to spoil Red Deer Rebels home opener

It’s been nearly 345 days since the Red Deer Rebels last played… Continue reading

Students walk into Hunting Hills High School, which is one of the Red Deer Public Schools with solar panels on its roof. (Photo by SEAN MCINTOSH/Advocate staff)
Red Deer high school was placed in lockdown following potential threat

Hunting Hills High School was placed in a lockdown Friday after Red… Continue reading

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer says some details of the provincial government’s 2021-22 budget need to be ‘sorted out’ when it comes to the hospital expansion funding. (File photo by Advocate staff)
More detail needed regarding hospital funding, says Red Deer mayor

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer says some information is unclear regarding the… Continue reading

Alberta Health reported two new COVID-19 deaths in Red Deer Friday. (Image courtesy CDC)
Two more deaths linked to Olymel outbreak in Red Deer

Province reported 356 additional COVID-19 cases Friday

An arrest by Red Deer RCMP is facing online scrutiny. No charges have been laid and the incident is still under investigation. (Screenshot of YouTube video)
Red Deer RCMP investigating violent arrest caught on video

Police say officer ‘acted within the scope of his duties’

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough to cover the average pinky nail but is made up of more than 280 components and requires at least three manufacturing plants to produce. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
From science to syringe: COVID-19 vaccines are miracles of science and supply chains

OTTAWA — A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

Wetaskiwin RCMP say a Maskwacis man died after he was struck by a vehicle. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Clare’s Law in Saskatchewan used handful of times; Mounties review their role

REGINA — A first-of-its-kind law in Canada meant to warn those at… Continue reading

The Magpie river in Quebec is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Boreal River MANDATORY CREDIT
Quebec river granted legal rights as part of global ‘personhood’ movement

MONTREAL — With its kilometres of rapids and deep blue waters winding… Continue reading

Thorough sanding of a table top is usually the first step to renewing a finish. Wax contaminants can sometimes still remain on a surface like this after sanding. Cleaning with rubbing alcohol and a rag gets rid of these contaminants without leaving a residue behind. (Photo by Steve Maxwell)
Houseworks: Fixing wood finishes

Q: How can I stop polyurethane from beading up on a mahogany… Continue reading

Need a knife? There are knives of all shapes and sizes at The Kitchen Store.
Hints from Heloise: Finding a good set of kitchen knives

Dear Readers: A good set of knives in the kitchen is a… Continue reading

Runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu speaks to the media at the opening news conference at the Canadian Track and Field Championships Thursday, July 25, 2019 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canadian athletes struggling to find competition as they try to qualify for Tokyo

Canadian athletes struggling to find competition as they try to qualify for Tokyo

Most Read