Some 150 kilometres north of Edmonton lies Athabasca County with the Town of Athabasca lying in its centre, on the banks of the Athabasca River and along the Highway 2. The county has population of 7,600, with 2,900 living in the Town of Athabasca, and 1,000 living the Village of Boyle. The Canadian Business Journal spoke with Gary Buchanan, County Manager, about the county, its economy and planned economic developments.
Settled by Europeans in the late 19th century, Athabasca County initially served as a fur trading post for the Hudson Bay Company. The area noted a dramatic increase of men passing through to join the Klondike Gold Rush (1897–1899), which had attracted some 100,000 people altogether. While not all gold seekers succeeded, some remained in the area due to the quality agricultural land surrounding Athabasca. These new settlers created a new community — Athabasca.
While agriculture has been an important economic driver, Athabasca lies in the transition zone between the agricultural land to the south, and forests to the north. Buchanan said, “When you visit Athabasca, you will see both forests and agricultural land. While we have a highly productive agricultural land, we also have lower quality lands that were never settled and remain unspoiled. So the local economy has agricultural as well as forestry components, and both are well alive in the community.”
Alberta Oil Sands
While the local economy is well balanced, Athabasca County represents the gateway to the whole Athabasca Oil Sands area. “Most people in Alberta are familiar mostly with the Fort McMurray oil sands development, but in fact there are three oil sands areas — the Athabasca Oil Sands [Fort McMurray], Peace River Oil Sands, and Cold Lake Oil Sands; and Athabasca County is the gateway community to all three areas. Business is passing through the county to take advantage of this natural resource, whether through the Town of Athabasca or the Village of Boyle.”
Contrary to the popular belief, Athabasca Oil Sands do not concentrate around Fort McMurray but extend southwards, towards Athabasca County. Currently two major mines producing oil from the oil sands — Suncor and Syncrude Canada, and people associate oil sands with the mining aspect of this development.
However, new technologies are coming into the industry focusing on oil extraction with minimal disruption to the surface and the natural environment, using horizontal extraction technologies.
SAGD – Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage
SAGD represents an enhanced oil recovery technology that has been specifically designed for producing heavy crude oil and bitumen. This advanced form uses steam to stimulate the embedded hydrocarbons. The exploration company drills a pair of horizontal wells into the oil reservoir, one above the other. Then high pressure steam is continuously injected into the upper wellbore to heat the oil and reduce its viscosity, causing the heated oil to drain into the lower wellbore, where it is pumped out.
VAPEX, Electro-Thermal Dynamic Stripping Process (ET-DSP), and ISC (In Situ Combustion) represent additional alternative extraction technologies. VAPEX uses solvents instead of steam to reduce oil viscosity and displace the oil. The patented ET-DSP process uses electricity to heat bitumen deposits allowing production using simple vertical wells. ISC uses oxygen to generate heat that diminishes oil viscosity, alongside carbon dioxide generated by heavy crude oil displace oil toward production wells.
“These are the new ways of exploiting the oil sands — instead of a mine, drilling a series of localized wells throughout the oil sands area. Each of these wells should produce 20,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil per day, with a construction crew of approximately 600 men, and staff of about 50 during operation. One of these SAGD operations is proposed some 30 miles North of Athabasca County, so Athabasca will have to provide a full gamut of services that support this transient as well as permanent workforce with schools, shopping and recreational facilities and opportunities.”
The Alberta Energy Corridor
To support the energy development in Alberta, the government and industry funded agency – The Alberta Energy Corridor – focuses on economic development in the Athabasca, Boyle and Wandering River area, with the mandate to diversify the regional area by attracting businesses that will increase long-term employment and community stability. “We have created this entity to market the region to anyone interested in doing business, whether it be a large transportation company or a skilled individual — the size of the business is unlimited. We have identified and planed out business areas where these businesses can be located, based on their industry. We are doing several promotional activities in this regard, letting the word out that we are open for business, and we support the local growth by keeping the land prices low,” says Buchanan
While the goal of the Alberta Energy Corridor is modest – to attract small business – companies are already moving in. The town attracted an IT company, as well as Northwest Fabricators, who relocated to Athabasca from Kelowna, as this company produces metal parts for the oil sands projects, and the company continues to grow, offering local employment opportunities.
As a county with increasing industrial development, Athabasca also faces challenges connected with accommodating long-term growth in regards to infrastructure, but surely there are communities across Canada that can only envy Athabasca County’s problems associated with growth.