When Roberto Villanueva joined Firebag in its early days, the site was producing about 50,000 barrels per day. Fast forward to today and Firebag is reaching back-to-back-to-back monthly production records, with the most recent being more than 235,000 barrels per day in April and a new quarterly production record for the first quarter of 2024.

The success stems from having clear goals – a focus on highest utilization and lowering the cost per barrel – which required close integration between the reservoir, or subsurface, and operations, or surface, teams.

“It took a continuous improvement mindset – not settling for good enough and understanding constraints in the operation,” explains Roberto who is the Reliability Engineering Manager at Firebag. “It drove us to take a closer look and measure our capacity, including bringing together a team to understand how to better use our existing assets to their full potential. Steam is at the heart of what we do, and we knew increasing our steam asset reliability was one of our best areas of opportunity.”

Steam is used to heat the bitumen locked in underground oil sand deposits, allowing it to flow for extraction and upgraded into oil. The more steam available, the more oil the site can produce. Through their work in early 2022, the team realized an opportunity to increase its steam asset reliability, and a big lever to this was boiler feed water improvements.

“The better boiler feed water quality is, the more steam you can generate reliably,” explains Roberto. “Through increasing the quality, we upped our steam production and built our steam asset resilience.”

Through its efforts, the team has increased reliability by five per cent over the past three years. “This past year we had a big step change and more reliable assets across the board. We’re producing numbers we are proud of and we all did this work together,” he adds.

Firebag’s Production Engineering Manager Lisett Briceno echoes that a solid, integrated one-team approach was a lever to success.

“We engaged process engineering, production and operations to understand our constraints – essentially it was a group effort between every part that touches In Situ. There was great collaboration and having clear priorities was an enabler,” explains Lisett.

They started focusing on decreasing the water-oil ratio flowing from the reservoir, recovering more bitumen from the wells.

“We have about 350 production wells at Firebag and we monitor each individually. Through our evaluation we understood what wells were producing more water than oil, and we focused on increasing the amount of oil recovered,” explains Lisett. “We optimized these wells, increased their productivity and in return produced more oil. Improving the wells’ reliability has been our number one task and we achieved that.”

An operator views the Diluent Stripping Unit, key to the process at our Firebag facility.

An operator views the Diluent Stripping Unit, key to the process at our Firebag facility.

The people closest to the work each day in operations had an up-front view and understood where the constraints were, focused on overcoming them and were empowered to share ideas.

Since Control Room Operator Darrol Finlay stepped his boots on the ground at Firebag in 2007, he’s always had a close connection with the site and along with his fellow operators, work together across the asset.

“We treat it like it’s ours, we take pride in our work and we care about the operation,” he says. “We are always looking at more efficient, and safe, ways to do better. This is how operators work – we always look to see where we can improve. The status quo is never enough.”

Operators brought their ideas to the table, like reducing the amount of costly chemicals used in the process to separate the water from oil, in turn saving money.

“Our operators run the plant and are involved in it all – machinery, processes and sampling. There is a sense of accomplishment in us all working together to provide value and benefit for Suncor,” says Darrol.

Delivering reliable operations and having a cost-conscious mindset are key to Suncor’s efforts to reduce the cost per barrel. Over the past year and a half, Firebag achieved the best three quarters’ performance in its history, contributing to In Situ’s track record of continuous improvement and value delivery.

Robert Wallenberg captures a sample being analyzed at our Firebag In Situ site.

Robert Wallenberg captures a sample being analyzed at our Firebag In Situ site.