By Reid Southwick
On the morning of Sept. 30, 1967, dozens of jets and commercial aircraft landed on Fort McMurray’s airstrip — then its busiest day ever — carrying oil executives, government officials and other dignitaries for what Alberta’s then-premier declared a historic day.
The bespectacled Ernest Manning, 59 at the time, stood before a crowd of some 600 guests gathered north of the fledgling town for the dedication of the first commercial oilsands mine, a grand science experiment.
The long-term viability of the resource would remain clouded in serious doubt decades after Manning delivered his rousing speech. But he was steadfast in the apparent belief that Great Canadian Oil Sands — the precursor of Suncor Energy — was on the cusp of something big.
“We are gathered here for this ceremony to officially open this gigantic complex, which for the first time will tap commercially the vast supply of oil that until now has remained locked in the silent depths of these Athabasca tar sands,” Manning said.
“It is fitting that we gather here today to dedicate this plant not merely to the production of oil but to the continual progress and enrichment of mankind.”
Another man who believed doggedly in the pioneering venture, John Howard Pew, shared the stage with Manning. Pew, the chairman of Sun Oil Co., which owned a majority stake in the project, had first taken an interest in the oilsands in the 1940s.
Under Pew’s watch, Sun Oil invested heavily in research to better understand the resource he believed was vital to North America’s energy needs, and to build the technology to harness it. Pew was ultimately a driving force in the company’s decision to put up funds for construction.
“At the outset of this undertaking, I told our stockholders that unless projects of this character were periodically challenged and solved, our organization would become soft and eventually useless,” he told the crowd, according to video footage of the ceremony.
“My associates have conceived and built this magnificent plant so I trust that they may now take comfort in the knowledge that (the challenges) are not solved and that they continue to be most useful.”
Outside the blimp-like tent that housed the ceremony, the day was wet and frigid, but the downpour didn’t deter guests from taking a backstage tour of the very first commercial plant that extracted bitumen from sand.
The oilsands would become a roaring engine of Alberta’s economy, but the early days were bedevilled with massive costs, low oil prices, labour unrest and a vast array of other setbacks.
“We were trying to operate a plant that was designed on paper, but there was no other plant like it, nothing to model it on, other than experiments done in the lab,” said Bert MacKay, who worked in the extraction plant during its early days.
The first plant had been expected to cost $190 million in the early 1960s, but ultimately rang in at $240 million, a 26 per cent overrun.
After production began, company executives often questioned the wisdom of forging ahead as plant facilities lost power, froze up or ignited in flames.
Robert McClements, who served as chief engineer for Sun Oil during the plant’s construction and was later in charge of startup, said the challenge wasn’t separating the bitumen from sand or upgrading the tar-like petroleum. It was managing the scale of the project and handling massive volumes of materials, including the toxic tailings waste.
“It was the best time of my life, the biggest challenge,” said McClements, now 88. “It was pioneering. We carved a whole city out of the woods.”
Hugh Furber, who worked office jobs at Suncor from the age of 19 to his retirement, was a rare Fort McMurray native working in the oilsands. His father was American born but later settled in Alberta, where he delivered milk in Edmonton and worked on the Northern Alberta Railway out of Grand Prairie before moving to Waterways, a community now part of Fort McMurray.
Other than Great Canadian Oil Sands’ massive project, there was little industry in the area in 1967 when Furber left his job at a local service station to join the oilsands operation’s payroll office. There, he had a front-row seat to the project’s many stumbles and breakthroughs.
He remembers several fires and explosions in the mine’s initial phase.
“There were a couple of times that I was just about running up the hill to get the hell out of that plant,” he said.
During bouts of labour strife, the non-unionized office staffer was forced to make the unenviable decision of siding with the workers, which would have been an end to his job, or crossing the picket line. He stayed on to support his family and learned to drive front-end loaders and gravel trucks to fill in for striking or locked-out employees.
One day during a divisive strike and lockout in 1986, Furber recalls a bus ride across the picket line to work when he had to duck as a rock came flying at the window.
“I lived in a crescent and across the street was the union worker who didn’t like me going to work,” he said. “But it wasn’t the case that I was doing it to shun them; I was doing it to support my family and my children.”