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Suncor's head office in Calgary.TODD KOROL

Regulators have approved three expansion stages at Suncor Energy Inc.'s Firebag oil sands project that will eventually add output of 188,000 barrels of bitumen a day, Suncor said Thursday.

The production phases, given the green light by the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board, would follow the $3.6-billion Phase 3 expansion being built now and scheduled to be in service next year, said Suncor, Canada's largest oil company.

The northern Alberta development currently pumps out about 60,000 barrels a day and the current Phase 3 expansion will double that.

Firebag employs stream-assisted gravity drainage technology, in which steam is pumped into the earth to liquefy the extra-heavy crude from the oil sands so it can be pumped to the surface in wells.

Suncor said it would hammer down cost estimates for the three future stages before its board approves them. The fourth stage is targeted for startup in 2012.

Each of the three new phases would pump out 62,500 barrels a day.

Firebag received top marks in a survey of nine steam-driven oil sands projects released on Wednesday by the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank. But with a 60 per cent showing, improvements are still needed, the study concluded.