Growing up in Saskatchewan, Dallas Heisler understood the importance of water from an early age.

“Water is prized given the prominence of farming where I grew up,” says Dallas, Syncrude’s Pit Lake Co-ordinator. “But we also recognize the value of water in the Wood Buffalo region. While agriculture isn’t a major industry here, the lakes, rivers and wetlands are very important. People want them to be protected. That’s no different than back home.”

Syncrude is bringing those values to managing Base Mine Lake, the demonstration project for its water-capped tailings The lake, which covers 800 hectares just south of Syncrude’s Mildred Lake upgrading complex, was a former mine pit prior to being a tailings pond.

“Syncrude completed tailings infilling at the end of 2012 and began importing fresh water from the Beaver Creek Reservoir starting in 2013 so there is now approximately 40 metres of fluid tailings covered with about 10 metres of water,” says Dallas. “Researchers from Syncrude (Medical equipment helps solve Base Mine Lake monitoring mysteries) as well as several universities, including the University of Toronto (Water is in her blood) and the University of Calgary (Micro organism hunter sees signs of progress in Base Mine Lakes microbial communities) have monitored the progress of Base Mine Lake since then. What they’ve found is the fluid tailings are dewatering, which reduces their volume. We’re also seeing promising changes in the water quality, which is in line with the 40 years of previous research we’ve done on water capping.”

Because Base Mine Lake is designed to function as part of a wider reclaimed landscape, it operates as a flow-through system with inflows and outflows similar to natural lakes.

“The inflow comes from the Beaver Creek Reservoir from the south. Right now, the outflow water is returned to Syncrude’s recycle water system,” Dallas says. “While the goal is to eventually have the lake flow out to the Athabasca River, we need to store that water on site at the present time until the federal governments establish regulatory criteria for treated mine water into the environment.”

Syncrude is working on demonstrating two technologies – water-capped tailings technology and coke-treatment (Warren’s innovation will help reclaim tailings ponds faster. – Syncrude) to eventually allow the release of mine water into the environment. Those releases are anticipated to be managed consistently with other releases approved from other industries in Alberta and Canada. Until then, all water – including Base Mine Lake’s outflow – must remain stored on site. “We are operating close to our capacity for mine water and tailings so we are looking at all options as we do not want to build a new tailings facility,” Dallas says. “As a result, we have decided not to bring in fresh water from Beaver Creek Reservoir to Base Mine Lake for this year. It is the responsible thing to do in order to manage our water inventory on site.”

The extensive monitoring program will continue to track changes within the lake through the year to determine how the change in water inflow influences Base Mine Lake’s performance.

We have a solid plan in place.

– Dallas Heisler

“We’ve tied this into all the work being done on the monitoring and research. We’ll continue collecting samples and getting researchers out on the lake and reporting those findings.”

The beauty of Sandhill Fen is more than skin deep. It goes deeper than the beauty of the plants and animals that thrive in its carefully designed wetland valleys and forested hills.

It penetrates some 60 metres below the surface landscape, where a Syncrude-developed technology enabled the use of oil sands mine tailings to fill this former mine pit back up to grade. In fact, the Fen and its surrounding watershed is the oil sands industry’s first example of mine reclamation over a foundation of treated tailings.

The Fen’s creation was part of Syncrude’s multi-pronged research spanning more than 20 years to design ways to construct the landforms that overlie the treated tailings; and foster the growth of peatlands, which are common in the natural landscape of the oil sands region of Northern Alberta. In essence, Syncrude set out to do what had never been done before. Syncrude has now published a Research Synthesis on its two decades of study.

The Fen was built in Syncrude’s former East Mine, an 11.5 sq. kilometre area at the company’s Mildred Lake site north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Mining here ended in 1997 and the 57-hectare Fen watershed was commissioned in 2012, in the northern section of this site.

Before that topography could be created, the empty mine pit needed to be filled up, a process that was completed using Composite Tailings (CT) technology. This gargantuan task took more than a decade.

The CT process takes fluid fine tailings from tailings ponds (a mixture of water and suspended clay material) and mixes it with coagulant to create a slurry that is hydraulically deposited into the pit. The coagulant causes the tailings to quickly consolidate and release water to the surface of the deposit. This water is siphoned off and recycled; what remains is a soft sand-and-clay material. Too soft, for example, to support the heavy construction equipment needed to bring in the sand, soil and other landform materials that will overlie the tailings and allow later-stage reclamation and revegetation.

That meant a capping strategy also had to be developed. Wayne Mimura, Senior Associate Geotechnical Engineer, says, “Capping is a process of constructing a safe trafficable cap or cover over the softer CT deposit to minimize risk for people, animals and equipment. It allows the construction of topographic features such as hummocks (small hills) and swales (lowland areas) for reclamation and vegetation using sand. In particular, we wanted to form the sand cap such that the hills and lowlands would direct surface and ground water in a way that allows wetlands and forests to develop.”

Capping soft tailings deposits is done all over the world; while it hadn’t yet been done in the oil sands industry, there was a body of CT research created by the University of Alberta in the 1980s that Syncrude had supported. Based on that knowledge, a series of small-scale capping tests were initiated to study both hydraulic sand placement (via pipeline) and mechanical sand placement (using large mobile equipment); these tests informed Syncrude’s commercial-scale application in the East Mine, where both techniques were used.

The capping technology creates a surcharge load over the underlying CT deposit. This allows the CT to dewater and gain strength over time, and minimizes the amount of settlement of the closure topography.

“This was the first in the oil sands industry,” says Wayne, who has been working for Syncrude for 32 years.

Successfully capping CT using conventional tailings technology has allowed Syncrude to reclaim and revegetate the land for its intended land uses.

– Wayne Mimura

The technology is now also being transferred to successfully cap and reclaim other soft deposits.”

While R&D work to address the capping issue was underway, the parallel challenge of CT tailings reclamation was also being addressed. This involved engineers working together with natural resource scientists.

“Whenever scientists and engineers are faced with a new challenge, we start with what we know,” says Syncrude ecologist Carla Wytrykush. “Although we had never reclaimed CT before, we had a lot of experience reclaiming overburden landforms and the tailings sand slopes of external tailings facilities. We knew that the CT and sand cap would release pore water to the surface of the land. We also knew that other experts could help us.”

Syncrude involved researchers from several scientific disciplines in the design of the CT reclamation pilot.

By inviting these diverse perspectives on the challenge, the opportunity to create the Fen was identified. Tailings researchers and engineers explained CT and its properties. Wetland ecologists shared how different wetlands form.

We knew we needed to develop CT reclamation practices, and we knew that fen reclamation was important to government and Indigenous stakeholders.

– Carla Wytrykush

Through collaboration, we brought these two challenges together into an incredible opportunity to advance CT and fen reclamation at the same time; the result is the Sandhill Fen Research Watershed.”

Carla says, “The Fen was built at the north end of the East Mine as soon as we could drive on it. Today, after nine years of intensive research and monitoring, it has an incredible story to tell: The wetland supports a range of plants typical of peatlands in the region; we’ve got peat formation; and we’ve got carbon accumulation. Those are huge wins in my mind. It’s informing how we are reclaiming the rest of the East Mine area. This work will be fully completed in the next few years and it will be the first fully reclaimed mine in the oil sands.”

The next time you hear about the Sandhill Fen, think about the beauty enshrined deep beneath the lush, green wetland.

Those interested in the synthesis of Syncrude’s Composite Tailings Capping Knowledge, which includes learnings from the Sandhill Fen Watershed, can download the materials here. The Synthesis includes research summary reports and a bibliography of scientific publications. Syncrude thanks the University of Alberta for making the Synthesis accessible to everyone on their Education and Research Archive online library.

But he’ll say that having a team you can rely on is the real key to improving production.

As the final product touch point, hydrotreaters are critical units in Syncrude’s upgrading process—and ensuring they continue to run optimally is of vital importance. That’s where Shane Bissonnette and the rest of the Hydroprocessing team come in.

A few years into his career as a Millwright with Syncrude, Shane’s keen eye for detail, love for collaborating with his teammates, and hands-on experience working the floor and fixing pump failures made him a natural choice for writing hydroprocessing maintenance procedures.

While Shane may spend long hours alone at his computer, he’s the first to admit that his writing process isn’t a solo mission. “I make a point to not sit in my cubicle all day. I go see my crew. They’re like my second family. I ask them questions. They ask me questions. I hear their frustrations and their excitement over discovering new ways of doing things. And I make sure all that information gets into the instructions and procedures.”

In 2019, Syncrude established the Pump Reliability Excellence Program (PREP). Not surprisingly, Shane was among those named to the PREP team. To say the program has been a success would be a serious understatement.

By consulting with the team on the floor to optimize maintenance procedures, the PREP team helped to more than double the average pump life in 2020. What’s more, pump reliability also dramatically improved last year; this enabled a more reliable hydroprocessing operation with the ability to throughput more product more responsibly.

It’s a team effort; many people contribute, and this makes the work easier.

– Shane Bissonnette

“The collaboration to make our maintenance procedures even better is very rewarding and it shows in the results,” remarks Shane with pride.

It’s true, the proof is in the production. Thanks to our workforce’s commitment to working collaboratively, seeking to understand and embracing a One Team mindset, we made real advancements in process reliability in 2019 and 2020, resulting in increased production of Syncrude Sweet Premium and overall improvement in environmental performance.

Kudos, Syncrude!

For some, the herd at Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch are a sight to behold as one of North America’s largest land mammals.

For those who are involved in running the ranch it’s more than a sight. It’s a connection to the land and to the iconic symbol that bison has become for Syncrude.

“The wood bison herd symbolizes Syncrude’s commitment to be a responsible oil sands producer,” says Jesse Hall, Syncrude’s Manager – Tailings and Lease Development. “The herd demonstrates our commitment to reclaiming the land disturbed by our operations. The herd, which is co-managed with the Fort McKay First Nation, also demonstrates our commitment to working with Indigenous communities in the region,” says Jesse whose responsibilities include the ranch.

Every spring those who work at the ranch see a renewal of that commitment when a new batch of calves are born. This year is no exception although calving season was a tad delayed this year, says Brad Ramstead, Ranch Manager.

It’s always great to see new calves being born at the ranch every year.

– Brad Ramstead

It’s an integral part of life here,” says Brad, a wildlife biologist whose history with the ranch dates back to 1991. He’s been managing the herd since 2005. “Right now we have more than 50 calves, a little less than a few other years, but fairly standard. We’re still getting more calves so we don’t know yet what the final number will be.”

In consultation with the Fort McKay First Nation, Syncrude decided to repatriate wood bison to the region as the subspecies was endemic to this region. Thirty wood bison were moved from Elk Island National Park, about 35 kilometres east of Edmonton. The first bison were moved here in February of 1993. This was the beginning and other animals were transported here over the first several years of operation. Elders from the Fort McKay First Nation held a ceremony to bless the herd upon its arrival at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site. The herd was also blessed during the 25th anniversary celebration, in 2018

Currently, the herd consists of 240 animals excluding the newborn calves which remain with their mothers all summer and into the fall. The ranch manages the size of the herd through sales at auctions. Mostly the sales consist of calves, yearlings and two-year olds. At the end of October, the entire herd on site are brought in for their annual round up, says Brad.

“We tag the new calves, conduct herd health checks and administer all annual vaccinations,” he says.

A portion of the herd spends the summer grazing the South Bison Hills area and can often be seen from the Wood Bison Viewpoint off Highway 63. The public is welcome to come and see the bison from the viewpoint.

When Dustin Stuyt and his team sought solutions to extend the life of tertiary sizer teeth in Syncrude’s ore crushing units, they looked internally to the Research and Development department for ideas.

The collaboration resulted in new technologies that could see oil sands mining and extraction equipment of all kinds running for years before they need maintenance.

Syncrude has been tackling material wear issues since production began in 1978. The abrasive nature of oil sand combined with the extreme temperatures throughout the year in Northern Alberta have played havoc on shovel teeth, grader blades, and tertiary sizer teeth in particular. As equipment and technology have changed, so have the solutions to these issues. The ultimate goal is to extend equipment performance as long as possible before replacement is required.

The company’s Leading Edge Advanced Performance (LEAP) project was created five years ago to look at extending the life of equipment in direct contact with oil sand and rock materials. Dan Wolfe, senior associate, Mechanical with R&D, leads the project and their work on tertiary sizer teeth has revealed viable solutions including friction welding technology adapted from the aerospace industry.

Tertiary sizers are the final step in wet crushing technology used at Syncrude’s North Mine operation to process oil sand and prepare it for hydrotransport. After oil sand is broken down by crushers in the field to about the size of a beach ball, the material has water added to it while it passes through two sets of sizers before being sent to Extraction. In secondary sizing, those beach ball pieces become the size of a volleyball, and after tertiary sizing the pieces are softball size or smaller.

Syncrude’s North Mine uses a wet crushing technology that mixes crushed oil sands with water through secondary and tertiary sizers to produce a slurry for bitumen extraction. New technology developed for the sizer teeth has the potential to extend unit run life 10 times longer than is currently achieved.

The magic happens in the tertiary sizers.

– Dustin Stuyt

“It’s the last step where oil sand is mixed with water and chemicals to convert it to a slurry of finer particles that can be easily transported to Extraction,” says Dustin Stuyt, a senior engineer with Equipment & Reliability Engineering.

Unlike other extraction technologies on site where screens reject materials larger than a specified maximum before the remainder enters the hydrotransport system, the use of sizers allows everything to be fed into the system allowing for greater bitumen recovery and fewer maintenance issues along the way to Extraction. There are four of these systems operating in parallel at North Mine.

The sizers consist of four rotating shafts about five metres long with fist-sized teeth. There are 432 teeth on each of the shafts on the tertiary sizers for a total of 1,728 in a machine. Over a typical run of 2,000 hours, more than 10 million tonnes of oil sand will pass through the system before the teeth will need maintenance, with the tertiary sizers taking the brunt of the wear.

The wear issue is significant in the sizers, because if you lose one inch off the teeth, larger materials get through and you’ll start damaging equipment downstream.

– Dan Wolfe

Dustin’s Extraction team and R&D tested a number of options for the tertiary sizer teeth with various degrees of success – including a test that both he and Dan referred to as a horrific failure – until they discovered two tungsten carbide options with serious potential.

Tungsten carbide is a dense, metal-like substance about two times heavier than steel and up to 10 times harder. It’s the hardest material commercially available to Syncrude and wears extremely well, but it is prone to cracking when attached to steel with traditional joining processes.

The first option to the team was teeth sourced from a US-based company specializing in tungsten carbide products. They developed a sizer tooth with broken bits of tungsten carbide recycled from hard rock drills embedded in the first centimetre of the tooth.
“These teeth cost less than what we’re currently using and so far the results have shown they can last about twice as long,” says Dustin.

Tertiary sizer teeth ready for action. The teeth are made from solid blocks of 25-millimetre thick tungsten carbide clad with a Kovar coating and attached to the segments using a friction welding technique.

The new teeth are being attached to the sizer segments as maintenance rebuilds take place. Using the previous teeth, the team budgeted for nine rebuilds per year but the new, lower-cost sizer teeth could reduce rebuilds to as few as three per year – meaning millions of dollars in annual savings.

“We think the teeth could process up to 30 million tonnes of ore before they need replacement,” says Dustin. “With the addition of small tungsten carbide studs between the teeth, we are seeing better product for hydrotransport and our wear rates have dropped off by 50 per cent since the wet crusher was commissioned.”

A second option, while more complex, is showing even greater potential. It involves cladding solid blocks of 25-millimetre thick tungsten carbide with a Kovar coating, and attaching them to the segments using a friction welding technique. Kovar is a unique iron-nickel-cobalt alloy that expands and contracts like the tungsten carbide material. When Kovar cools from the cladding operation it doesn’t create residual stress at the bond line. Without the Kovar coating, a crack forms when the tungsten carbide is welded to the steel and it doesn’t take long for the block to break off.

Hugh Roth is a senior associate, Metallurgy at R&D, who tested this new technology and introduced the Kovar coating/friction welding solution. “With friction welding the weld takes seconds to make. It is only hot at the interface and the carbide doesn’t know it’s being welded,” he says.

Syncrude is the first company to evaluate this technology and we anticipate it having benefits for a wide range of earth engaging equipment.

– Hugh Roth

Syncrude is analyzing results as they come in and is looking to evaluate the technology for other applications. R&D tested friction welding on grader blades and tertiary sizers this winter with extremely positive results. While regular grader blade edges last about two weeks before they need to be replaced, the test showed potential for them to last an entire season. Additionally, 66 of the friction welded sizer teeth were put into service and all of them showed little to no wear after two months. It’s possible the teeth could last 10 times longer than current teeth, or 20,000 hours.

“It’s a totally different level of capability,” said Hugh. “We can design and operate equipment in a completely different way now that we know materials can last 20,000 hours or more and we can rely on the metal keeping its shape. Outage schedules don’t have to be what they were, and we may not have to build redundancy into our operating equipment.”

While there is excitement for the results to come from this collaboration, Dan believes more can be done to improve wear rates in the future. Developing two parallel solutions for a big problem and applying those ideas to other leading edge issues, means there is more testing to do. And with that, more innovations to come for R&D and Bitumen Production to extend wear life on machinery and equipment.

Connections either big or small, direct or indirect, matter. For one Fort McMurray Catholic Schools student, a connection Syncrude made means his future is looking up and bright.

Robbie Buffalo, a Grade 11 student at Holy Trinity Catholic High School, says he’s looking forward to going to university to pursue his dream.

“This is like a dream come true,” says Robbie, who’s been offered a scholarship at the University of Alberta (U of A) playing football with the Golden Bears in 2022. The football team’s coaches have also set him up with a mentor. “Most of my family members haven’t even graduated high school. To be chosen, and to be selected to go on a scholarship for my academic skills is really great.”

Kevin Garbuio, a vocational education teacher at Father Mercredi High School, was instrumental in making the connection between the University and Robbie. Between 2015 and 2018 he brought students to the USchool program at the university. USchool aims to introduce and connect students in Grades 4 through 9 from socially vulnerable Indigenous and rural communities to the U of A. Students attend the program for a week on campus. While it’s offered at no cost to participating schools, they are responsible for their own transportation. That’s where Syncrude stepped in to provide transportation for the groups of students attending the program in Edmonton.

A group of students from the Fort McMurray Catholic Schools attend USchool at the University of Alberta (Photo supplied)

We established a relationship with the U of A through the USchool program. We then started reaching out to their athletics department and we were able to send seven to eight kids a year to their camps.

– Kevin Garbuio

That was the connection that Robbie needed to get the scholarship that will set him on a bright future.

Monica Mankowski, Deputy Superintendent at the Fort McMurray Catholic Schools District, says the whole district is proud of what Robbie has accomplished so far. But she also wants to acknowledge Syncrude for its support over the years.

We recognize that in Fort McMurray one of the barriers is the distance to a university.

– Monica Mankowski

“Syncrude supported the idea of how do we actually create a better bridge to post-secondary programs when our students have to go so far away to universities; away from family, away from a support system, and being totally independent. It can be quite a significant barrier for some student and we wanted to plant seeds to future options for students in our community.”

Kara Flynn, Syncrude’s Vice President, Government and Public Affairs, says she’s delighted to hear about Robbie’s story.

“Helping students get ahead by being a part of their education, training and advancement plays into the strength of Syncrude as a company. We believe in assisting our community to make it stronger and robust,” says Kara.

Seeing a student like Robbie on his path to success is gratifying and fulfilling.

– Kara Flynn

Over three years about 80 Fort McMurray Catholic School students have participated in the USchool program and about 30 per cent of them are planning to attend university when they finish high school.

To learn more about USchool click here.

Syncrude and USchool program

Syncrude has supported USchool through the U of A Chancellor’s Cup Golf Tournament. Over the years the company has invested close to $440,000 in the tournament. The funds raised through the tournament are used to support the USchool Program. When the Chancellor’s Cup was cancelled in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, Syncrude made a direct donation.

Warren Zubot is leading the team behind an exciting innovation that’s targeting faster, more effective reclamation of tailings areas.

Syncrude takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. That’s why we’re always looking for new and better ways to improve our sustainability and environmental performance. Take Warren, a Senior Engineering Associate who is on a mission to find a way to treat tailings water for safe release.

Tailings, a byproduct of extracting bitumen from oil sand, are stored in tailings ponds and are a mixture of water, sand, clay, fine solids, residual hydrocarbons and salts. Although these ponds are the source of water that is recycled and used in our production processes, their growth is something we want to avoid. Having the ability to treat and safely release tailings water will eliminate the need for long-term storage and allow faster and more effective return of land to a natural state.

That’s where Warren’s innovation comes in.

Applying principles that are similar to a home water filter using activated carbon, Warren’s technology uses petroleum coke from Syncrude’s upgrader to remove the unwanted compounds from tailings water, transforming it so that it can safely support aquatic life and other downstream uses. Once tailings water becomes safe for release, tailings areas can be returned back to a productive natural state, making this water treatment innovation a huge step in solving a major reclamation challenge.

After a successful small-scale pilot in 2012, Syncrude contracted one of the region’s leading Indigenous businesses to design and construct a full-scale pilot treatment facility, as well as manage the ongoing monitoring of treated water. The facility began operation in June 2019.

It takes a lot of outside-the-box thinking to create something that’s never been done before. It took a lot of collaboration across Syncrude teams, along with the skills of a local Indigenous business to make it possible.

– Warren zubot

Syncrude has engaged Indigenous communities and other regional stakeholders to educate them about the project, seek feedback and ensure we work with our neighbours to mitigate their concerns.

As always, Syncrude will share insights with our industry partners through COSIA, as well as with academic institutions to advance knowledge and ensure results are transparent and publicly available in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

When Rochelle Young first started working at Syncrude 20 years ago, she heard about plans to turn the west in-pit tailings pond into a lake.

“I remember wondering, ‘How is that actually possible? I was working as an environmental scientist and it was hard to imagine.”

Today, Rochelle works as a Regulatory Affairs Advisor and that tailings pond is now Base Mine Lake, an eight-square-kilometre pit lake that borders Highway 63 to the west as you travel south from the Mildred Lake site.

Syncrude stopped using it as a tailings facility close to 10 years ago – on Dec. 31, 2012. The lake now plays a critical role in Syncrude’s reclaimed landscape as the first commercial-scale demonstration of water-capped tailings technology and the oil sands industry’s first pit lake.

But, why pit lakes? Surface mining results in large pits that must be reclaimed. Some mine pits are filled with mine materials such as overburden or tailings to form a solid surface, which is then reclaimed to forests and wetlands. Other mine pits are reclaimed to lakes.

Due to the nature and timing of mine material movement and use, the overburden that was removed to initiate the pit is reclaimed as soon as practical on Syncrude’s site. This is part of our commitment to progressive reclamation and meeting our goal of minimizing the effect of disturbance.

However, this leaves insufficient material available to fill one or more of the mine pits at the completion of mining. These pits may be partially or fully filled with water (mine and/or fresh water) and reclaimed as a lake (pit lake). Pit lakes reduce the need for material re-handling, which would result in increased emissions from material transportation (such as greenhouse gases or nitrogen oxides), lengthen reclamation timelines and success, and increased costs.

Pit lakes are used at open-pit mine sites around the world, and are a global mining industry best practice for reclamation and closure. Pit lakes support a variety of plants and animals typical of aquatic ecosystems and are integrated into the reclaimed landscape.

“Syncrude has included water-capped fluid tailings in pit lakes since its earliest closure plan designs,” says Rochelle. “The Alberta regulator gave our company approval to have Base Mine Lake as a demonstration to prove that pit lakes are viable.”

Developing a successful pit lake requires planning, monitoring and research to learn and guide lake management.

Pit lake designs and plans have changed over time to reflect the state of knowledge of oil sands mine waters and tailings, technology advances, changing regulations and inputs from local stakeholders and Indigenous communities.

Base Mine Lake’s water capping technology includes filling the empty mine pit with fluid tailings (a mixture of clay, fine solids, water and residual bitumen), and then capping it with water to form a lake. The demonstration intends to show that the water quality will improve over time while the tailings solids remain isolated at the bottom of the lake.

Rochelle, who is working on several tailings projects, explains pit lakes are just one of a suite of reclamation methods that are used today and that like with any reclamation project, there are challenges. However, she believes that this is a challenge that Syncrude will meet.

“Results of the water-capped tailings technology are very positive so far. Syncrude is demonstrating we have physically sequestered the tailings from the water body,” says Rochelle. “We are also showing the water quality is improving over time, which is supporting natural biological communities to develop.”

With roughly 40 years of rigorous research on pit lakes among Canadian oil sands producers, Rochelle is confident and optimistic about Syncrude’s reclamation that includes Base Mine Lake and future pit lakes to come.

It is amazing to see the progress over the past 20 years. The Base Lake Mine project demonstrates what can be achieved with research, experience and hard work. It shows what seems impossible is within your reach.

– Rochelle Young

Kerri Cutler and Craig Keeping work on two separate but interdependent teams that helped each other achieve big things in 2020.

At Syncrude, our workforce is made up of about 5,000 employees. We use the term workforce because when we work together as One Team, we are just that—a force. Due to the sequential, just-in-time nature of our production process, we all rely on each other to keep operations running smoothly.

Take Kerri and Craig’s story, for instance. They may not work directly together, but thanks to extraordinary teamwork and cross-discipline collaboration both of their teams achieved remarkable milestones in 2020.

As a heavy duty mechanic on Team 506, Craig’s team achieved an almost unimaginable milestone with one of the trucks from the 17-100 series, which were introduced into service in 1999 making them the oldest trucks in Syncrude’s fleet. Under the care of many, haul truck 100 surpassed 150,000 hours in service—more than doubling its original life expectancy of 72,000 hours!

Craig has been tuning up 100 series haulers for nearly a decade. Over the years he’s developed a real passion for keeping them running at their best and performing in line with the new models. He’s also the first to point out that a milestone like this doesn’t happen in isolation.

“No one person made 150,000 hours happen. It took a complete group effort to make it possible, from our leaders to our coordinators to the planning department to all the mechanics in the shop.

It’s a whole Aurora Mine Maintenance Team effort really.

– Craig Keeping

It’s that kind of teamwork that keeps our haul trucks running reliably and delivering a steady stream of oil sands to Extraction. It was also a major contributor in helping another set of our colleagues achieve an outstanding outcome of their own.

The Bitumen Production team set not one but two outstanding production records in 2020: best month ever in December with 13,383 kilobarrels (KBBL), breaking the previous record of 13,074 KBBL set in August 2016, and best week ever with 3,272 KBBL in the week of December 15, breaking the record of 3,251 KBBL set the week of December 22, 2018.

Panel Operator Kerri Cutler remarks that this amazing achievement is the result of cooperation and alignment across the organization. After working 13 years as a field operator, Kerri now puts her field experience to work in the control room.

“Being on the panel gives you a different perspective of the importance of equipment reliability, availability and working closely with other teams—upstream and downstream,” observed Kerri.

Collaboration is key. Everybody always comes together to figure out the most efficient, most effective way to get things done.

– Kerri Cutler

“This team spirit not only played a big role in achieving the record bitumen production, it also makes Syncrude a great place to work.”

Driving a vehicle where the steering wheel sits two storeys off the ground while carrying a payload of close to one million pounds might intimidate some people.

But Nicole Rymes, who had never even driven a pickup truck growing up in the Ottawa Valley, isn’t one of them. And whether driving a heavy hauler to convincing her manager to dress up as a superhero for a United Way fundraiser, Nicole is not afraid to take on challenges that might daunt others.

“I moved to Fort McMurray in 2008 after going on a vacation and catching up with a cousin who had moved there,” says Nicole. “I arrived in Fort McMurray on a Tuesday and started working at Aurora on that Friday, driving a 797 for a contractor. It happened that quickly.”

After joining Syncrude as an employee one year later, Nicole moved from the operator’s seat to a series of new roles, each with different challenges.

“I’ve received several great opportunities working at Syncrude, from working as a mine dispatcher to becoming a field leader to working with Internal Audit and Business Controls so our four mining teams at Aurora complied with their systems,” says Nicole, who now works as a Leadership Development Coach, working to improve the skills of frontline leaders throughout the organization.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot through the different roles, tasks and opportunities I’ve been given.

– Nicole Rymes

I’ve also been fortunate to have some great mentors, such as Lynn Smith, Gary McNeilly, Sherill Stevens and Glen Finnson.”

Nicole began balancing her careers work with commitments with a new and growing family. “I met my husband Ken here – he works for Suncor in tailings management as project specialist,” says Nicole, who was married in 2012. “We have two daughters. Alice was born in 2013 and Lucy came along two years later.”

Balancing the commitment of her career and family poses challenges willingly embraced by Nicole as well as by her husband.

“It’s something that everybody has to deal with it but I’ve always had a lot of support from my leaders when something has come up, such as one of the girls has come down with something. They’ve always been understanding and I don’t think that’s something unique to me,” she says. “What’s funny is the kids are very proud of the fact that their Mom works at Syncrude. My oldest daughter attends school at St. Anne’s and when the teacher mentioned a particular initiative was sponsored by Syncrude, she stuck up her hand and told everybody ‘My Mom works there!’”

She’s also applied some lessons working in her field coaching role to her parenting.

As a field coach, you are working with leaders to help shape the behaviours of employees in a positive way through teaching applied behavioral science.

– Nicole Rymes

A lot of this is around identifying positive behaviors and highlighting them through positive reinforcement,” she says. “This has definitely influenced how I parent my children. I’m looking for positive things that I see them do and highlighting them, whether it is tidying their rooms or clearing the dishes after a meal.”

In addition to her roles at work and home, Nicole has taken on another challenge as the chair of this year’s Syncrude United Way Campaign for employees, which supports the United Way and its agencies in Wood Buffalo, Calgary and Edmonton.

“I started out with the United Way by helping out the coordinator of the Aurora campaign. We’d organize barbecues and make sure all the shifts could see the United Way rollout presentation,” she says. “I took on that role next year and I had a lot of fun with it. I created a superhero competition where all employees at Aurora could cast their vote for somebody they’d like to see dress up as a superhero for a day. Gary McNeilly, who was the manager up there at the time, ‘won’ the contest and was a very good sport about donning a mask and cape. It raised a lot of money for a great cause.”

Syncrude Vice President Bill Chase, the executive who sponsors the employees’ United Way campaign, asked Nicole to serve as co-chair for the 2020 campaign, which raised more than $2.1 million.

Nicole’s passion for the cause really stood out when she was organizing the United Way events at Aurora and growing the campaign wide merchandise program.

– Bill Chase

It made her a natural to approach for a leadership role with the overall campaign,” says Bill. “Her creativity in finding fundraisers and champions in different areas so our employees could hear the message and participate has helped the United Way campaign succeed, despite the considerable challenges posed by COVID-19.”

And for her part, Nicole sees volunteering to help the United Way as part of her commitment to making Fort McMurray a better place to live and work for her family and her coworkers.

“I’m proud to work for an organization that has made significant investments in this community and encourages its employees to volunteer to help make this a wonderful place to work and raise a family,” she says. “As a mother, it makes me feel good to see my daughters have the opportunities provided by Syncrude and others in industry. You see it in the schools but also in the recreational facilities and programs in the region. Seeing what my daughters have available to them makes for a pretty good Mother’s Day gift.”