by Moona Khan

    Oil Sands Safety Practices

    Over the next 25 years, the economic contribution from the Canadian oil sands is estimated to reach over 2.1 trillion dollars, injecting its effects nationally as well as internationally across north america. As a key driving force, the impact of the heavy crude industry will reach nearly every region in Canada through job creation and economic activity. The continued development and production of the oil sands will, consequentially, emphasize the importance of safety practices that will ensure longevity and success within the oil and gas industry.

    Safety has always been at the forefront of Canada’s vast oil sands operations. With the continued emergence of new equipment and technology, policies and procedures with respect to safety are continuously refined. Large oil and gas organizations must be committed to persistent operational integrity while working with local and provincial regulatory bodies to ensure the safety and the health of not only their employees and operations, but for the public and environment as well. Furthermore, all oil sands workers should be given the necessary knowledge, training, and technical skills needed to evaluate and implement current safety practices.

    Performance of Operations With Respect to Worker Safety

    Companies with oil sands operations in general have multi-layer internal safety systems in place that are improved through organizations such as the Oil Sands Safety Association (OSSA). OSSA is a non-profit partnership between members of Syncrude Canada, Suncor Energy, Shell Albian Sands, and Canadian Natural Resources that aims to create strategies and tools that result in “an incident-free workforce” by working with unions, labor workers, and contractors.

    The standards recognized by OSSA under their Safety Training Standard create clear identifiable content for end-user safety training requirements. In addition to non-profit organizations such as OSSA, the Alberta government’s Occupational Health and Safety code requires the strict implementation of safe worksites, and safety planning and coordination.

    Through current legislation, all companies are required by law to have incident management and hazard identification systems in place. These systems help workers take responsibility for their own safety and for those around them, by being cognizant of their environment and by having access to the required technical training.

    Use of Alcohol and Drugs

    One of the major ongoing concerns in the oil sands region is the use of recreational alcohol and drugs. Although different companies have different approaches to dealing with this issue, the current pre-access and post-incident testing is no longer a viable solution. The policy of random and unannounced testing of employees in risk-sensitive areas has long been rejected by arbitrators and unions, who argue that random testing is an invasion of a worker’s privacy. However, companies, like Suncor Energy that holds one of the principal positions in the oil sands, continue to defend their right to implement the testing to ensure worker safety. Suncor believes it can be legitimate given the right circumstances.

    Given the legal challenges of random drug testing faced by companies like Suncor, companies are building cultures that drive these dangerous behaviors out. The key with management has been to target the end user and to build safety systems from the bottom up. They encourage engagement from workers through team-building exercises and continuous safety training that drives the value of ownership and responsibility into workers by being more involved in the development process. An up-and-coming trend in oil sands safety practices is the use of interactive avatar online-training courses, which have grown in popularity due to the remoteness of unconventional oil sites.

    Another important component of driving positive behaviors home is the use of acknowledgement or “recognition” tools. To focus on safe behavior, these recognition tools have been milestone-based in order to address the larger group of employees—for example, accident free for 12 months. However, peer-to-peer recognition and individual acknowledgement have been recognized as excellent methods of trending out complacency in workplaces.

    Technology Considerations

    The main crude oil reserves in Alberta are found in the Athabasca, Peace River, and Cold Lake areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In the oils sands, 20 percent of the reservoirs are located near the surface, while the remaining 80 percent in the outer areas are found in deeper underground reserves. The reserves located close to the surface can be extracted using surface-mining methods while the deeper reserves, found more than 70 meters below the surface, have to be drilled in situ.

    Most drilling (in situ) heavy oil sands practices revolve around the use of high-pressured steam. Using steam at such high pressures and temperatures comes with many different safety risks and concerns. The current steam technologies include Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), Cyclical Steam Simulation (CSS), and Steam Drive (steam flood). There are also many SAGD by-products currently being tested and implemented including Hybrid SAGD, Cross SAGD, and Steam Solvent Hybrids such as Solvent Assisted Process (SAP).

    Because of the many concerns regarding the use of high-pressure and temperate steam, there are many developing recovery technologies that eliminate the use of steam completely. These technologies include Vapor Extraction (VAPEX), Toe to Heel Air Injection (THAI), and Combustion Overhead Gravity Drainage (COGD).

    Thermal projects with respect to in-situ drilling methods work by heating or diluting heavy oil and decreasing its viscosity, allowing it to flow through reservoirs and pipelines with ease. The main steam-based thermal recovery technologies being implemented in the oils sands today are SAGD and CSS. The concept of SAGD was created in 1978 by Roger Butler at Esso, and works by injecting heating fluids in order to continuously produce viscous hydrocarbons from deep underground reservoirs. CSS, commonly known as Huff-and-Puff, on the other hand, works by injecting high-pressure steam into a reservoir for a certain period, which is then allowed to immerse the reservoir for several weeks, and the bitumen is pumped up through the same well that the steam was previously injected into. SAGD employs the use of two separate wells: one for the producer and one for the steam injector with the oil and condensate being drained continuously.

    There are many benefits to SAGD operations including a reduced environmental footprint as there is decreased clear cutting, an elimination of tailing ponds, the reuse of water, and lower emissions and reclamation. However, SAGD operations can also impose severe safety issues due to the high pressure and temperature of the steam employed. In-situ drilling operations require substantial amounts of energy to produce steam that is injected underground to warm the heavy oil in order to allow it to be pumped to the surface. If the amount of steam generated for a SAGD process exceeds the approved steam-injection pressure, a catastrophic release of steam can result in the reservoir cap rock being breached and harmful gases being released, which can ultimately result in the abandonment of a project as seen in 2006. Although no harmful gases were released and no injuries reported, Total E&P Canada Ltd breached the reservoir cap rock in a SAGD operation northwest of Fort McMurray, blasting a giant crater into the ground and throwing rocks 300 meters into the air. The volatile nature of this incident had the industry reassessing the amount of steam used in SAGD technology.

    The popularity of this proven technology has increased over the years; however, there is still room for improvement. The amount of steam required has been significantly reduced over the years and has the potential to be further reduced with commercial implementation of new SAGD derivatives. These prospective SAGD derivatives have the potential to have better recovery rates, lower costs, and greater energy productivity.

    Safe and Healthful Environmental Practices

    With a constant revision of regulations, Alberta and Canada have taken a proactive approach to the oil sands regulations and regulatory compliance programs to ensure safe and healthful environmental practices.

    Most oil sands major operations are located many kilometers outside of Fort McMurray in densely forested areas that are surrounded with wildlife activity. Because wildlife habitats can be altered when companies move into the area, most companies implement the use of wildlife identification programs. These programs track animal sightings and migration pathways in order to avoid constructing pipelines and other aspects of large projects through animal habitats, ensuring that wildlife is minimally disrupted to the best of the companies’ abilities.

    The industry is also regulated federally by Environmental Canada, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Provincially, Alberta facilities are overseen by the provincial government’s department, the Alberta Environment Sustainable Resource Development (AERSD) along with the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB). These bodies work with companies to minimize the safety risks that are caused by the development of the oil sands to ensure safe and healthful environmental practices. The AERSD is also in charge of enforcing environmental laws and carrying out scheduled and random inspections along with compliance sweeps.


    A condition to any project approval includes the submission of confirmed monitoring data to the appropriate government regulatory body. Companies are required by legislation to publicly announce any incident that results in a substance that could lead to an adverse environmental effect. The industry currently collaborates in regional monitoring programs, including the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program and the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA).

    The Wood Buffalo municipality is one of the largest municipalities in North America, covering north central Alberta to the borders of the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan. The WBEA monitors air quality on behalf of its local residents and is a partnership between communities, the government, local Aboriginal stakeholders, the oil and gas industry, and environmental groups. It currently operates the most widespread ambient air-monitoring network in Alberta, and current members include companies such as Cenovus Energy, Conoco Phillips Canada, and Devon Canada Corp. Having a collaborative network for ambient air monitoring in the oil sands regions reduces the operating costs for companies and minimizes air-monitoring repetition.

    In addition to air monitoring, the WBEA currently also monitors human exposure and terrestrial activities in order to assess how the environment is affected by air emissions.

    As the holder of the third-largest oil reserves in the world, Canada’s position in the global energy market has never been more critical. In order to increase the economic sustainability of the upstream petroleum operations, the industry must first continue the practice of safe environmental and socially responsible oil sands development. With continued operational integrity, the major players in the oil sands development are committed to conducting safe and consistent practices. These practices are put in place to minimize environmental impact and protect the well-being of the public and employees.

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