Canadian tar sands/oil sands operators are having trouble lining up the skilled work force they need for a busy period of essential scheduled maintenance, with nine facilities fighting COVID-19 outbreaks as the country lurches through a third wave of the pandemic.
The maintenance activities are nothing new, but the stakes are higher this year. “About once a year, tradespeople from as far away as Canada’s east coast move into work camps in the Fort McMurray region for weeks,” Reuters reports. “Last spring, maintenance turnarounds were scaled back as the first wave of COVID-19 hit. This season will be busy, since oil sands operators cannot meet regulatory and safety requirements if they put the work off again.”
But getting workers in place may be easier said than done. “Oil sands companies are introducing rapid COVID-19 screening tests and offering to help workers pay for travel,” the news agency says. “Still, it may be hard to get skilled workers and keep them safe due to the variant-driven spike in cases, with nine oil sands sites fighting outbreaks,” including Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL)’s Horizon project, as well as Suncor Energy’s base plant and Syncrude project.
An Alberta government spokesperson told Reuters the three plants, which account for about one-fifth of Canada’s crude oil output, have reported 115 cases of new-variant COVID.
“It’s absolutely crazy in the oil sands right now trying to get workers,” said Ian Robb, Unite Here!’s Canadian director. “People don’t want to travel, especially not by plane or by bus. But these east coasters need the work, they are used to the work, and we need them here.”
Chris Flett, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 955, talked to Reuters about a shortage of highly-skilled workers like welders, citing CNRL as one company that has struggled to secure some tradespeople. The news agency says CNRL declined to comment.
But the company “is implementing longer shifts, up to 24 days working and four days off, while allowing workers to commute in personal vehicles to limit close contact”, Reuters adds, citing company documents. It’s also telling workers how much they can recover for the cost of air travel.
Suncor and Syncrude said they’ve had no trouble securing skilled trades, though Syncrude is extending its maintenance schedule from 45 days to 75 to limit the number of workers onsite. “Having spent a year working with our COVID-19 protocols, we are comfortable in proceeding with this event,” said spokesperson Will Gibson.