Three stories tall, these trucks now seem like an obvious approach toore delivery. That wasn't the case in the beginning.
Retired Syncrude COO Jim Carter describes an oilsands mining technology revolution.
This article appears in the December Oilsands Review
The haul trucks used in today’s oilsands mining industry are some of the biggest in the world—1.4-million-pound, 20-foot-tall, multi-million dollar behemoths ferrying 400-tonne loads of bitumen ore from the hydraulic shovel to the crusher at top speeds of 40 miles per hour. And this is the more agile and economic option.
By Adriana Davies
In the 1980s, trucks and shovels began to replace burdensome and even more costly bucket-wheel and dragline equipment. The new system was first incorporated into overburden removal, and then for the ore itself—enabling oilsands mining producers to operate and expand in a more cost-effective and selective manner. One of the key people recognized for driving this revolutionary technology change is Jim Carter, former president and chief operating officer of Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Jim Carter was a graduate of mining engineering from Nova Scotia Technical College when he heeded the call to “go west, young man.” He had gotten a taste for mining work through summer jobs in Ontario while in high school, and his first job after graduation was with the Iron Ore Company of Canada in Labrador City, N.L. In 1974, Carter was enticed to move to Alberta by a former colleague. He went to work for Smoky River Coal Limited in Grande Cache, rising from mine foreman to mine manager and finally, mine superintendent.
It was when he headed up a provincial study examining mine lighting that he met Dennis Love, general manager of mining at Syncrude. Carter recalls Love’s comment to him about the operation: “Jim, we’ve got a bit of a challenge here with our mine plan. It’s not quite working the way we’d thought. We’re going to have to move to truck and shovel stripping of the overburden, and move our draglines and buckets onto oilsands.” It was an opportunity that the 29-year-old couldn’t pass up. In 1979, Carter went to work for Syncrude as manager of overburden operations.
He says, “The original plan had the dragline sitting on top of the overburden and then digging it and putting it into the pit all at the same time as casting up the oilsands. What happened was that the overburden would not stay at a steep angle. It wanted to go flat, and it contaminated the oilsands, therefore rendering that mine plan inoperative.”
These were the very early days of Syncrude, when various theories not only to do with the mining operations but also the chemistry of extracting the oil from the sand were being tested on an industrial scale rather than in the lab. Carter notes: “The whole industry was really viewed as a bit of a curiosity in those days. Nobody really believed that we were going to be successful with this very complex business of mining the oilsands and extracting the bitumen, then taking this very, very heavy oil and upgrading it to a light, sweet crude that was then usable in refineries to turn into gasoline and diesel fuel, propane and whatever. The world didn’t know much about the oilsands. Certainly, even in Edmonton it wasn’t really that well-known. Calgary, it wasn’t well-known. Toronto, they didn’t know about it at all. So, if you were going to get involved in something that was really a pioneering endeavour of the highest order, this was it.”
The other issue was the link between the oil business and mining; this was not a natural match. To merge the two operations, as was happening north of Fort McMurray, Alta., was viewed with great skepticism. But they were doing it, and in driving the shift to trucks and shovels, Carter was set to play a pivotal role.
His first big challenge was sizing up the geotechnical issues associated with the soft landscape.
“Because the oilsands are soft to traffic on, there wasn’t a lot of aggregate material around for building the roads, and yet we had to move these high volumes. I wanted to use the 170-tonne trucks because those were the largest in the industry at the time, and I knew that the unit cost per tonne-mile of moving a tonne with those was going to be lower than, say, an 85-tonne truck or a 50-tonne truck, even though the conditions were very soft,” Carter explains.
“The biggest challenge I had initially was convincing people there that we could do this successfully. Great Canadian Oil Sands at the time had tried the big 150-tonne trucks, and they didn’t have much success with them. They were switching their fleet back down to 85-tonne, mechanical-drive trucks. There was a lot of skepticism to overcome, shall we say. But we persevered on that and ended up being very successful.”
If existing trucks couldn’t do the work required, then, they would need to be redesigned. In Labrador City in the iron ore business, Carter had used a particular brand of 170-tonne truck called the Terex, which was made by GM in London, Ont. It worked well in severe conditions and had a robust drive system. Carter had actually spent time with the manufacturer in their engineering offices and noted that they used the same drive motors in this truck as they did in their railway locomotives—a technology that could help move across the soft oilsands mine floor.
“The locomotive, when it goes to get started, starts off with the electricity going to the motors in series, and then it switches to series parallel, and then to parallel once it gets rolling and gets its speed up. I had thought this would be a great advantage to use in the oilsands because the trucks normally have power going to the wheel motors in parallel.” He and other Syncrude representatives asked GM whether they could do the series parallel arrangement on the trucks, and GM agreed.
The result was a design that enabled the operator to switch from parallel into series when he got on the waste dump, when the rolling resistance was really high in the soft conditions. Carter says, “It increased the torque to the rear wheels by about 45 per cent, so it made a tremendous advantage for getting across these soft waste dumps. Now, of course, whenever you do that, you’re putting more horsepower into the components, so we needed to build a bigger axle, a larger-diameter axle, which became known as the tar sands axle on those trucks. It gave them the capacity to haul a 200-tonne payload across the soft conditions. It was really then that we realized we could make these trucks work, and we used radial tires. Radial tires tend to have a greater footprint, so they got the ground-bearing pressure lower, and that enabled them to traffic over the softer conditions.”
Carter says that once the Syncrude team started using trucks and shovels for overburden removal, other opportunities for the system presented themselves.
“The first year that we had the fleet running, it was designated as a six-million-cubic-metre-a-year fleet, and we actually moved 10 million cubic metres within the first year, so it was a great success. It was the initial success of that particular fleet that enabled us then to really look at trucks and shovels on a go-forward basis. It meant that we weren’t going to be limited to bucket-wheel excavators and conveyors and draglines. So that opened up opportunities for other technologies to be introduced into the mining system.”
By the late 1990s, the truck and shovel system was well underway in replacing draglines and bucket-wheels in the oilsands industry, a technology change that has enabled the cost-effective expansion of mining operations. Syncrude retired its last bucket-wheel and dragline in 2006.
Carter steadily rose through the ranks at Syncrude, eventually taking on the role of president and chief operating officer in 1997, which he held until retiring in 2007.
This article is one in a series reflecting information from the Petroleum History Society’s Oil Sands Oral History Project, which is recording the stories of oilsands pioneers in their own words. As with the society’s previous oral history projects, transcripts and recordings will reside in Calgary’s Glenbow Archives. Adriana Davies is part of the team of researchers/writers behind the project.