To Kelly Hansen, working at Devon's steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) oil sands plants is like being on the threshold of a new industry.

Although commercial production from Canada's oil sands began in 1967, “the SAGD business is still in its infancy," said Hansen, production manager for Devon's three SAGD facilities, each dubbed Jackfish.

“Industry's first SAGD plant went into production around 2001 or 2002 — Devon's first facility in 2007. Because this is a new industry, we need to attract the best people we can to work in it," he said.

Hansen is a proud proponent of Devon's collaborative approach to plant construction, commissioning and operations. That approach allowed the company to start steaming at Jackfish 3 in July 2014, five weeks ahead of schedule. This happened while building off the experience from its sister Jackfish 2 plant, where production began in 2011.

Hansen credits Devon's “management systems approach," adopted in 2007-2008, with the success in bringing on production at the Jackfish plants.

“It's based on the thesis of continuous learning and not repeating past mistakes," he said.

Minimizing risk

The three Jackfish phases have a combined ultimate capacity of 105,000 barrels per day of bitumen, before royalties.

The nearly 500 Devon and contract workers on-site at Jackfish 1, 2 and 3 seem to be happy right where they are, with an attrition rate among the lowest in the SAGD sector. Devon employs more than 1,300 people in Canada, with most of its engineering talent located in Calgary (but with frequent visits to plant sites).

Devon's approach means many of the risks associated with executing large projects are minimized, said Tim Weber, a mechanical engineer who is Devon's general manager of facilities and construction. That means engineers and other key workers can concentrate on design improvements that can lead to huge cost and time savings.

“We try to standardize the design of phases, so we know what we're dealing with, but at the same time we urge our people to be innovative," Weber said.

Innovation in action

The company's approach towards “soil stabilization" at Jackfish 3 illustrates that philosophy.

“We created a matting system by mixing soil with cement," Weber said. “It meant that every time it rained, or when there was some other weather event, we didn't have to close the site down. It is better on people and equipment."

Originally those who designed the system budgeted $11 million. However, it ended up costing less than $6 million.

“It was a huge difference on Jackfish 3," Weber said. “It meant we didn't have to shut the site down at all. With Jackfish 2, we had to shut the site down for a month because of weather."

He said Devon now plans to implement the matting system at all of its projects where feasible.

Click here to learn more about Devon's formula for success in Canada.

Published: December 2014