After delayed start-up, Fort Hills mine achieves first oil

Following recent complaints from workers about lost wages in the midst of unexpected start-up delays, the Fort Hills oilsands project has achieved its first oil production.

The mine north of Fort McMurray now in 'continuous production'

Suncor said late Monday it will compensate contract workers for lost wages (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Following recent complaints from workers about lost wages in the midst of unexpected start-up delays, the Fort Hills oilsands project has achieved its first oil production. 

Suncor Energy Inc., the project operator, said Fort Hills remains on track to reach 90 per cent capacity by the end of 2018 and will continue to ramp up through the first quarter.

The project was brought online on Saturday, the company said in a statement.

"With operations at Fort Hills now in continuous production, we've brought one of the best long-term growth projects in our industry into service and we're now focused on the safe and steady ramp up through 2018," said Steve Williams, Suncor president and CEO in a statement.

The Fort Hills operation is 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta. It had been contending with unexpected delays in operations.

With a maximum capacity of 194,000 barrels per day, Fort Hills is one of the biggest oilsands projects, accounting for nearly 10 per cent of current oilsands production. The mine was scheduled to begin producing oil by the end of 2017.

Construction of Fort Hills was green-lit in 2013, after the project was shelved for five years due to the 2008 financial crisis.

The last part of the plant to be commissioned was the "secondary extraction" facility, which processes bitumen froth into bitumen.

That process took longer than expected, leading to a work stoppage that was longer than anticipated. Dozens of contractors spoke out last week, claiming they were being forced to stick around until the work was complete without being paid. They were later compensated for their time.

According to a senior superintendent who spoke with CBC News, about 1,000 workers were promised two weeks of work at the Suncor facility, followed by one week off, but were forced to stay in the camp without adequate pay for more than a week.  

Workers had been left sitting idle and being paid about 20 per cent of their normal wage.

Construction on the site was temporarily restricted because it is in final commissioning and start-up stages, Suncor spokesperson Erin Rees told CBC News last week.

Fort Hills was expected to begin producing bitumen by the end of 2017, but Suncor said it would miss that target by two or three weeks. Once fully operational, Suncor's Fort Hills mine is expected to generate 1,600 jobs and have a lifespan of 50 years.

Last year, Suncor said delays caused by the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016, along with construction changes to boost capacity, had added from $1.4 billion to $1.9 billion to Fort Hills' estimated cost, taking it to between $16.5 billion and $17 billion.

Suncor holds a 53.06 per cent interest in the project, while Total E&P Canada Ltd. owns 26.05 per cent. Teck Resources Ltd. holds the remaining 20.89 per cent.

With files from the Canadian Press