Pioneer passion: First bitumen mine saluted as ‘enrichment of mankind’

Official opening of GCOS. Image: Suncor.

Americans had the space program. Albertans had Great Canadian Oil Sands. Kindred spirits drove both enterprises in a visionary period that deserves to be called the age of engineering.

Sun Oil’s Philadelphia headquarters and provincial leaders gushed zeal for technical mastery when company chairman J. Howard Pew and Alberta Premier Ernest Manning opened the pioneer bitumen mining and upgrading plant 50 years ago.

As 30 charter aircraft flew 600 dignitaries to the GCOS site north of Fort McMurray for the ceremony Sept. 30, 1967, Sun Oil explained that a breakthrough into using a world-class natural resource attracted the attention.

“Near this small town in the Alberta northlands 450 petroleum workers are wrestling oil from the earth in an entirely new way,” said the project description circulated by the international corporation’s publicity bureau.

Manning’s ribbon-cutting speech foreshadowed astronaut Neil Armstrong’s eloquent description of the 1969 moon landing as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The Alberta premier told the GCOS crowd, “This is a red-letter day, not only for Canada but for all North America. No other event in Canada’s centennial year is more important or significant. It is fitting that we are gathered here today to dedicate this plant not merely to the production of oil but to the continual progress and enrichment of mankind.”

Pew set a tone of determination tempered by recognition of pioneering risks. “At the outset I told our stockholders that unless projects of this character were conceived and started, our organization would become soft and eventually useless.”

His remarks were prophetic. Unlike the space program, oilsands production had to become self-supporting. Achieving plant reliability and profits took nearly 10 years.

Although the opening celebration emphasized livelihoods and government revenues, provincial leaders had also recognized risks of industrialization and started to take precautions. The GCOS era included the birth of Alberta’s environment department—a first for Canada—and land reclamation and clean air and water legislation.

Tailings management and sulphur emissions control were oilsands issues from the start. The first conditional approval decision on GCOS in 1960 by the Energy Resources Conservation Board (now the Alberta Energy Regulator) increased the plant cost forecast by about 10 per cent to cover anticipated environmental expenses. Project assessments included an estimate of CO2 emissions.

The ERCB cited a green message from extended public hearings: “It was quite probable that anti-pollution requirements would likely become more stringent with time.” The prediction was right. By the 1970s, GCOS faced investigation and prosecution for accidental sulphur emissions and wastewater leaks.

With a startup production target of 45,000 bbls/d, GCOS was modest by the standards of the mature 2017 oilsands industry. But half a century ago, the founding plant stood out as a daring venture.

“The GCOS project is the largest private undertaking ever attempted in Canada at one time,” said Sun’s corporate headquarters.

The company calculated, “In total cost of $235 million [$1.7 billion in 2017 purchasing power] the GCOS project represents nearly three-fourths the price of $322 million [$2.3 billion in 2017] which Canada invested as its share of the St. Lawrence Seaway development.”

Plant parts included about 1,025 kilometres of electrical cable, 70,000 cubic metres of concrete, 3,000 tonnes of reinforcing steel, 34,000 horsepower of pumps and 14 storage tanks with a combined capacity of one million barrels. “The man-hours expended for design and construction totalled about 10 million.”

Oilsands mining required a gargantuan feat of earth moving. The heavy lifting eventually defeated the biggest and best 1960s machinery, prompting development of today’s mammoth trucks and shovels.

Over the 30-year forecast life of the original GCOS operation, Sun predicted 450 million tonnes of “overburden” muskeg and glacial drift, averaging 16 metres deep, would have to be scraped off.

The company hoped an average of 108,000 tonnes of ore would be dug up every day by its startup hardware: “electrically-powered monsters” that were 12 story-tall, 3,700-horsepower bucket wheel excavators imported in pieces from Germany on a 40-car special train. Each machine took 50,000 man-hours to assemble.

A demanding mine schedule predicted “about 4,500 tons, or 3,200 cubic yards, of material will be moved an hour. A full day’s output is equivalent to the capacity of 2,160 railway gondola cars, each carrying 50 tons—enough to make up a train nearly 16 miles long.”

Sun, Pew and Manning had a receptive audience for high oilsands expectations: 125,000 Albertans bought debentures convertible into shares in GCOS, a public stake that the government made the company grant.

“We worked from this premise: that the natural resources of Alberta belong to the people of Alberta as a whole,” Manning recalls in oral history memoirs preserved by the University of Alberta.

In the GCOS case, Manning recalls, “We wanted the Canadian people, and particularly Albertan people, to have a chance to get a position in this.”

Breaking the oil habit was not yet a popular economic theme in 1967. The province’s modern petroleum industry was only 20 years old. Memories of the Dirty ’30s in Alberta ranching and farming were still fresh. When GCOS was born, oil still represented escape from leaving too many eggs in one economic basket.

An eminent public servant and historian, James MacGregor, expressed ’60s gratitude for the industry launched by the 1947 Leduc discovery well in a Canadian centennial project book titled Alberta, a Natural History.

During the Great Depression, “nothing flourished but gophers and tumbleweed. Over half of Alberta’s production came from agriculture. When rains failed and markets fell, farming became a nightmare of fruitless effort,” recalls MacGregor.

As oil, construction, manufacturing and mining grew, “the fluctuation from prosperity to despair inherent in an economy based almost solely on agriculture had given way to a prosperous mixed economy. Thanks to the finds of oil and gas, a year of drought or frost, or one of low wheat prices, could no longer cripple Alberta,” MacGregor writes.

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