Neighbours across Highway 63 for more than four decades, Syncrude and Suncor helped build the oil sands industry and community together.

The two organizations began working together more closely in the past few years. A number of joint initiatives were launched, including a project to build a pipeline between Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site and Suncor’s Base Plant, secondments of employees between the two organizations, moving Syncrude’s Calgary employees to unused space in the Suncor Energy Centre and working together on several areas, such as camp services, winter drilling and security.

That collaboration was built upon earlier this week, when Suncor announced it had reached an agreement in principle with the three other Joint Venture owners to take over as operator of the Syncrude Project by the end of 2021.

Doreen Cole, Syncrude’s Managing Director, sees the move strengthening the foundations of the industry’s two oldest operations.

Both Syncrude and Suncor have a long and proud history in the oil sands. In this next phase, we’ll be able to build upon each of our strengths to become stronger together.

– Doreen Cole

“We can both benefit from each other’s expertise, similar operations and the regional proximity of our assets.”

Mike MacSween, Suncor’s Executive Vice President – Upstream, sees Syncrude’s people as a major benefit.

“Part of the value of the Syncrude project is the people who know and run the asset. Syncrude is a large and complex operation and will continue to need a skilled workforce – one that continues to be high demand – to operate it,” Mike says.

Through the transition process, some workforce efficiencies and reductions are anticipated. However, for the vast majority of Syncrude employees, there will be little to no change to roles.

– Mike MacSween

Suncor and Syncrude are committed to working closely on this transition to ensure it is done safely and thoughtfully. We are committed to being open, honest and respectful as any changes that impact people are made.”

The organization also share the value of building the region of Wood Buffalo and investing in the communities by providing support for programs, initiatives and new infrastructure. That commitment will continue, Doreen says.

“Syncrude’s community investment is an important part of the quality of life in the region. All commitments that Syncrude has made to the community will be honoured. If your organization is working with somebody from Syncrude, they should continue to serve as a point of contact,” Doreen says.

Syncrude will remain the operator of the project until the change is finalized, which will take place before the end of 2021.

Until that happens, Doreen says the organization will continue to focus on its key priorities.

“Syncrude will to focus on safely, reliably, responsibly and profitably producing crude for our Joint Venture Participants. That won’t change,” she says Our employees and contractors have demonstrated they can do this in the most challenging circumstances, from wild fires to COVID-19 pandemic.”

Syncrude will also continue its work in engaging with Indigenous communities in the region during this transition. “We have a long and proud history in this area,” Doreen says. “All agreements with communities will be honoured. Ongoing consultation and engagement will remain the same during the transition period as Syncrude remains the operator.”

Syncrude and Suncor will continue to keep employees and the wider community updated throughout the transition process.

“We don’t have answers to all the questions right now,” Doreen says. “But I do know we are stronger together. This move will support our goal to become regionally and globally competitive.”

We don’t have answers to all the questions right now. But I do know we are stronger together. This move will support our goal to become regionally and globally competitive.

– Doreen Cole

Syncrude Safety Codes Officer Ross Green is part of the RMWB Rapid Response Team and was quick to jump in when he got the call to help during the Fort McMurray flooding.

“I was asked to assess the flooded properties to see which buildings were safe to turn the power on right away and which buildings needed repair before they could have power turned on. I was in the role of an electrical safety codes officer,” he says.

Syncrude is a Mutual Aid partner, which is an alliance between Syncrude, Suncor, CNRL and the RMWB, providing emergency aid to each other as good neighbours.

Ross was loaned to the city to help with the natural disaster.

Ross helped inspect nearly 50 commercial buildings downtown and in Taiganova: “The ones that were not damaged wanted their power back on as soon as possible so that they could start cleaning up, or even those that had minor damage, if they could get an electrician in there and fix it right away. We would look at it and let them know if they were safe or not to power up,” he adds.

Nearly 13,000 people were forced from their homes after the flooding and an estimated 1,200 structures were damaged in Fort McMurray’s downtown core, but according to Ross, the people he was in contact with were in high spirits.

It was quite eye-opening. It’s sad to see the devastation and how much work they have to recover, but it is also kind of heartwarming too because you can really see the Fort McMurray spirit coming through these people

– Ross green

“Quite honestly, I was amazed with their attitude. I didn’t run into anyone that was feeling sorry for themselves, even though they are entitled to. I am sure they have moments when they are feeling overwhelmed, but you sure don’t get that sense from them.”

Ross experienced different ends of the spectrum while assessing the damage and giving either the green or red light to the business owners. From areas protected from sandbags placed by volunteers, to buildings with three to four feet of water and extensive damage, and everything in between.

He was also able to reference his Syncrude safety principles when working on these buildings: “It was a great to have all that Syncrude knowledge and wisdom to bring with me to this because it really was helpful. Sometimes your spidey senses go off and you feel something just isn’t right,” he explains. “The RMWB Safety Codes Officers and I changed some approaches based on our discussions. That is the strength of collaboration.”

When Syncrude and Suncor asked artist Jeff de Boer to create a major monument to salute the spirit of Wood Buffalo following the 2016 wildfire, the Alberta-based sculptor was not intimidated by the scope of the commission.

“It’s rare the clients have such a clear understanding of what they want from a piece of art,” Jeff says. “They wanted this piece to highlight the strength and resiliency of Wood Buffalo.”

His sculpture The Pillars of Wood Buffalo captures what happened following the fire. “It’s about optimism and rebuilding. It’s about realizing the strength of the community when it’s tested by adversity,” says Jeff, who began his professional career in 1989. “This is a monument, not a memorial.”

The new sculpture sits on Keyano College’s Clearwater Campus at the corner of Franklin Avenue and King Street in the green space at the front of the campus. Steel and concrete – which symbolize the materials of industry – are used to create the pillars. A centre pillar is surrounded by groups of three pillars, which represent different communities in the region.

Rather than viewing the pillars as trees in a forest or buildings in a skyline, Jeff sees the sculpture’s pillars representing a broader concept. “Trees build forests; people build cities. They both can do that because they are strong communities,” he says. “This sculpture shows balances between nature, city and industry that the region represents.”

Doreen Cole, Syncrude’s Managing Director, sees the sculpture as a fitting tribute to the region’s response to the wildfire.

“In the days during and after this emergency, as bad as they were, something remarkable emerged,” she said at last week’s announcement. “And that is the spirit of strength and resiliency that was demonstrated by so many people as we worked to recover, rebuild lost homes and structures, and move on with our lives. This spirit is what Syncrude wanted to celebrate when we, together with Suncor, were considering a community gift.”

“Today, some two-and-a-half years on, we now have something else beautiful to reflect upon, and that is the sculpture we unveil today.”

Public art is often recognized as a contributor to a community’s unique identity and sense of pride. “Art is incredibly valuable in creating a vibrant and engaging community,” says Shelley Powell, Suncor Senior Vice President, Base Plant, Upstream.

It’s not only a testament to our collective strengths and our resilience, but a visual reminder of the potential it has to foster our bright future.

Shelley powell

“When I look at this incredible sculpture, I am reminded of how our communities faced extreme adversity with grace, poise and strength,” says Don Scott, Mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. “In the face of unfathomable challenges, the people of this region grew closer together and persevered with support from our partners and countless individuals from across the country and beyond. The sculpture captures how we have been changed by this experience yet remain a strong, proud region looking confidently towards the future.”

Dr. Trent Keough, President & CEO, Keyano College, believes the artwork will inspire students as well as the community, while providing an important place for reflection on the events surrounding the 2016 wildfire.

“We are honoured to be the stewards of this public art initiative, and sincerely commend the sponsors of this project, Suncor and Syncrude, for their vision and for their continuing efforts to give back to the community,” he says.

The sculpture, like Wood Buffalo’s community spirit, will endure for a very long time.

“Part of what shaped this sculpture was monuments created by communities of the past, such as Stonehenge or the great cathedrals of Europe. Like those monuments, The Pillars of Wood Buffalo is built in a circle with different entrance points that lead to the centre,” Jeff says. “I wanted to leave behind an artifact of the past, something that would endure. This sculpture was built to last 1,000 years.”