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Staff from Devon Energy load a North Cariboo Aircraft at the company's modernized airport near Conklin, Alta. (Todd Korol/Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
Staff from Devon Energy load a North Cariboo Aircraft at the company's modernized airport near Conklin, Alta. (Todd Korol/Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

Air Oil Sands: a new flight path in Alberta Add to ...

All of the private oil sands aerodromes move, by one estimate, 750,000 people a year. A similar number move through Fort McMurray. Combined, that's enough traffic to exceed the passenger volume moving through city airports in Victoria, St. John's, Saskatoon, Regina and Quebec City.

Each company uses a different strategy. Syncrude, for example, has just two small business jets that it uses to shuttle high-level personnel between Edmonton, Calgary and its Mildred Lake mine site. Syncrude is among the closest operations to Fort McMurray, but it still sees benefits in maintaining a paved strip on site.

“A lot of people don't appreciate how far north these oil sands operations are. Although they're 10 to 20 minutes north [of Fort McMurray]in flying time, they can be anywhere from one hour to, in some cases with weather, two hours drive,” said Robin Borse, manager of aviation for Syncrude. The savings are even more apparent when flying direct from Calgary. It's an hour to Fort McMurray. It's 65 minutes to Mildred Lake. For someone flying in and out in a day, “that's two hours' savings,” he said.

It doesn't hurt either that those flying on oil sands planes board at private terminals and circumvent the time-consuming security procedures that come with flying on commercial airlines.

And companies that have done the math say flying in workers is actually cheaper than having them arrive on commercial jets, or otherwise. Not only are there the time savings, there's also liability. It costs less to insure workers travelling by air than on the ground.

Persuaded by the logic, enough companies are flying workers around that Statoil thinks it can make money handling them. Already, its Leismer aerodrome, set up as a separate corporation with Thai company PTTEP, welcomes flights chartered by ConocoPhillips, Cenovus Energy Inc., Petrobank Energy and Resources Ltd., and Harvest Operations Corp. – each of which pays landing fees to touch down there.

Sometimes, as many as eight aircraft are on the ground at once. And with forecasts suggesting substantial growth – Statoil alone sees its output growing 20,000 barrels a day to 80,000, an increase that will bring far more people – the company has already sketched out the next steps to expand the airport.

“We would need to build a taxiway so that we could station aircraft ready for takeoff and landing off the airstrip,” said Brian Blattler, Statoil’s vice-president of commercial affairs. “It’s our ambition that we become a hub – a regional airport.”

PREPARING FOR GROWTH

The practice of flying workers is not without controversy. It has infuriated officials in Fort McMurray, which see oil sands airplanes carrying away jobs from the municipality. Environmental groups see aviation as enabling a level of activity they see as unsustainable. “You obviously want to ensure that socio-economic benefits are optimized. And if it’s all fly-in, fly-out labour, it’s not clear that’s the case,” said Simon Dyer, policy director at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental advocate.

The Fort McMurray airport authority, too, is gearing up against private oil sands aerodromes that, while equipped with safety equipment, are not certified by Transport Canada and don’t maintain the same standards. Fort McMurray airport is now building a new terminal five times the size of its current building. It’s also engaged in a new regional transportation plan, which involves new roads and bridges to speed ground traffic. When that is built, the airport hopes it can woo planes back to its tarmac.

For now, though, Air Oil Sands is flourishing.

At Devon’s Kirby, the equipment is all brand new: a new sweeper, de-icing machine and mauler – used for snow removal. Much more is coming. Devon has plans to build a series of buildings, including a new terminal, equipment shed and accommodations for the staff that will maintain the strip 24 hours a day. A wider, thicker runway will land bigger aircraft, and a paved apron will provide parking for up to six planes.

Because, of course, they’re preparing for growth. Industrial plans for this area, a two-hour drive south of Fort McMurray, show the next five years could see the arrival of 20,000 new workers.

And a good chunk of them will come by air, arriving from across the country – and, indeed, the world – to skim over the forests of northeastern Alberta and build the next generation of Canada’s oil works.

“Today, we bring people in here from Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge,” said Nick Geib, a Devon manager responsible for Kirby, as he stands beside the runway in the trees.

“But we could bring them in from anywhere as our level of labour rises. You can’t source everyone from Edmonton and Calgary. There’s not enough people ready to work in the oil patch.”

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