Most of Syncrude's workforce returns after explosion, fire at oilsands site

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FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Most of Syncrude’s workforce has returned to an oilsands mining complex in northern Alberta after an explosion and fire, a company spokesman said Wednesday.

But Will Gibson couldn’t say whether production has been affected, a day after the blaze erupted at the Mildred Lake upgrader, 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

One worker was injured and taken to hospital in nearby Fort McMurray in serious but stable condition. Company crews had the fire, which started Tuesday at about 2 p.m. local time, under control that evening, Syncrude said.

Gibson couldn’t say how or where the fire began.

“I’m not in the position to confirm where the fire started,” he said an email. “We’re still making some basic assessments on damage and stabilizing the upgrading complex.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator and the province’s Occupational Health and Safety division are investigating.

The incident raises questions about Syncrude’s operational reliability after it posted some of the best results in its 40-year history last year.

TD Securities analyst Menno Hulshof said in a note to investors that Syncrude averaged more than 98 per cent utilization in the second half of 2016, an improvement attributed by some to Suncor Energy increasing its stake in the ownership consortium from 12 per cent to 54 per cent through buyouts of two other partners.

He said Syncrude’s 2017 utilization guidance of 84 per cent, which includes downtime for planned maintenance, will probably fall along with production levels because of the fire.

A fire at the Mildred Lake upgrader in August 2015 slashed output at the facility by about 80 per cent before it returned to normal production by October.

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