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Financial Post: Shell Canada has two airstrips underway

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The sector is about to see a massive new wave of fly-in, fly-out employees arrive.

Suncor is in talks about access to the airstrip with other players, including Synenco Energy Inc., which also hopes to import construction workers and later operations personnel aboard jets to its Northern Lights project.

Northern Lights and Kearl Lake are among the farthest developments yet from Fort McMurray and the fly-in, flyout strategy will be key to attracting workers, said Todd Newton, Synenco’s president and chief operating officer.

“We’ll have a camp facility on the site and we think the strategy widens the pool of resources that we can realistically look to to be part of our ongoing operating crew,” Mr. Newton said.

“We think it gives us an advantage because if people are already located in a town of city where they are comfortable, but they want the benefit from oilsands employment opportunities, Synenco Energy represents an entity where they are not required to relocate.

“Their kids can stay in the same schools, their spouse doesn’t have to move, lose and then try and relocate their job.”

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. started the trend two years ago when it began flying construction workers aboard 737s from hubs such as Edmonton to an airstrip the company built at its Horizon oilsands project 100 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray.

Shell Canada Ltd. is now in the process of building two airstrips to fly in workers to build a major expansion at the Athabasca Oil Sands Project.

Shell, which like Suncor is in talks with other companies about sharing the use of its new airstrip facilities, is building one runway on land at the Jackpine Mine 100 kms due north of Fort McMurray.

The project’s Scotford upgrader just east of Edmonton, where oilsands bitumen is piped in and refined into synthetic crude oil, is also part of the expansion and Shell is in talks with the local municipality about expanding a nearby regional airport to take larger planes, so workers can be flown in and out from locales across Canada.

Janet Annesley, Shell’s spokesperson for oilsands, said the company does not favour a transient operations staff, although Shell’s mine sits closer to Fort McMurray than either project proposed by Synenco or Imperial Oil.

“For us, we envision our full-time operations people living and working in Fort McMurray. Right now, they commute back and forth and we arrange bus charters, which was a condition of our regulatory licence,” she said.

“We believe it’s best for the community and ultimately for the long-term viability of our business for our employees to have investments in the communities where we operate.

“We bus for safety and to reduce traffic on the road, and secondly for the convenience of the workers,” Ms. Annesley said.

The emergence of rumours about plans for a half-dozen private airstrips caused a stir in Fort McMurray in early 2005. Municipal politicians imposed a moratorium on any developments until it could assess any potential negative impacts on the region’s public airport.

Early last year, with the number of proposals down to two — Shell’s and Suncor’s — and with industry players seemingly willing to work together to share facilities, the moratorium was lifted.

Brent Stuart, chairman of a special aerodrome committee made up of politicians and industry members that was created to monitor the trend when the ban was lifted, said the public’s main concern has always been protecting the viability and growth prospects for the region’s main public airport at Fort McMurray.

“It has to be protected but we believe that concern is being more than satisfied,” Mr. Suart said. “As are our concerns about safety and the region’s air capacity for more activity.”

He said NAV Canada, the country’s civil air navigation services authority, recently joined the ad hoc group and to monitor the growth of air traffic in the skies above the oilsands.

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