The Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame Society is honouring six men and women as its 2018 inductees at a special luncheon Nov. 23 at the Calgary Petroleum Club. In a series to be published weekly on the Daily Oil Bulletin and jwnenergy.com, writer R.P. Stastny profiles each of the inductees. Today: Neil Camarta
As a bitumen partial upgrading pioneer, Neil Camarta has come a long way from his start engineering Shell’s Jumping Pound and Waterton gas plants. But most people will connect his name with Shell’s Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP) amidst the wave of oilsands megaprojects in the early 2000s.
Relentless drive and optimism ferried Neil through the tumultuous years of rapid oilsands expansion that led to AOSP’s first production in 2003. Despite cost overruns, labour challenges and a fire on opening day of the project, AOSP marked an important oilsands industry milestone.
In light of those challenges that he faced and overcame, Neil often jokes of having been a “negative poster boy” for the oilsands. But none of that detracted from the respect he earned among colleagues, employees, stakeholder communities and investors. His passion and rapid-fire oilsands colloquialisms — “dirt” for bitumen, “pots and pans” for the infrastructure to process bitumen — reshaped the lexicon of the oilsands business.
Born in 1953 in Edson, Alta., and growing up in northern Alberta, Neil’s parents wanted their son to become a welder. In high school, Neil learned to weld from his uncles and helped them during the summers but ultimately made good on his aptitude for math and science to be the first in his family to go to university.
Neil studied chemical engineering at the University of Alberta. Field trips to Fort McMurray spurred his fascination with the oilsands. In the last semester of his studies, in 1975, he applied for a job with Syncrude and was hired, except that a Syncrude partner dropped out of the joint venture shortly after, and the company’s hiring plans were frozen.
So instead, Neil joined Shell Canada, where he was employed for the next 30 years. In his first five years, he worked mostly as an engineer, building and operating the Jumping Pound and Waterton gas plants. He also did some drilling production and well monitoring before transitioning to a management role in the Waterton Gas Plant.
He spent a year in Toronto, working on service agreements between Shell International and Shell Canada, then returned to Alberta, this time to run Shell’s entire Waterton operation.
Overseas postings followed, first in London, England, then South Africa. He returned to a hard landing in Calgary, taking an uninspiring role in corporate strategies. Itching to get on with something more interesting, Neil was then asked by his boss to look at some of Shell’s oilsands leases, which it had sat on for 42 years and was about to lose.
Shell’s Lease 13 was one of the best leases in the oilsands, with an estimated five billion barrels of oil and very little overburden. Presenting those numbers at Shell’s European head office, Neil was told he had better find a way to hang onto to those leases.
That marked the beginning of Shell’s AOSP. Alberta wanted to grow commercial prospects for the massive resource and adopted a more beneficial fiscal regime in the mid-1990s. Shell found partners to reduce its risk and began working on the project when oil was $12 a barrel.
By 2003, when the project started up, Shell’s costs had spiralled to almost $6 billion from its $4 billion budget, but oil prices had climbed disproportionally higher to $30 a barrel. Everyone made money and the AOSP became an important success for Shell and the oilsands industry.
“Neil was able to bring his problem-solving skills to bear to obtain internal and external support for the first major new mine project development in some time, which led to the effect of kickstarting the next wave of oilsands development in Alberta,” recalls David Collyer, former Shell executive and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers president, who has known Neil since their time at the University of Alberta.
Shell then offered Neil a job at head office in the Netherlands, but he didn't want to leave Alberta. So he retired from Shell in 2005 when he was in his early 50s. That only lasted “about a day.” Petro-Canada asked him to be its senior vice-president of oilsands and he accepted.
Neil played an important role in the Suncor/Petro-Canada merger in 2009/10, helping to join the companies. He stepped down from Suncor, kept busy as an industry advisor and eventually founded Field Upgrading, a partial upgrading technology venture aimed at commercializing a simple and clean upgrading process for converting heavy oil into bunker fuel.
“Neil also has a unique ability to connect with the very broad range of people, which is an important quality for any leader,” Collyer says. “This ability to connect with diverse groups of people makes Neil that much more effective in understanding different perspectives and finding solutions that meet the needs of many different stakeholders.”
Since 2017, Neil’s focus shifted to a different kind of challenge. He left the management team of Field Upgrading to help find a cure for a rare form of muscular dystrophy called FSHD (facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy), which he has suffered from for years.
While a cure won’t help him personally, Neil says it would be a gift to future generations, including his family.
Click here for more details on the event, and to purchase tickets.