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CALGARY – Alberta’s tar sands maintain production levels with essential personnel only as operators attempt to minimize the impact on the workforce of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

However, depending on the trajectory of the virus, the head of an industry group said there could come a time when production would be affected.

“This period of low activity has been planned and prepared,” said Perry Berkenpas, executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance. “I would say we can see some emerging issues on the horizon with personnel that have the potential to impact operations over the next few months. “

Berkenpas said energy companies operating remote camps in northern Alberta currently focus only on routine day-to-day operations and enforce home work orders for all other employees. This decision was made just before Christmas, when it became clear that Omicron would likely have an impact, he said.

“The amount of work and the number of people at the site have been as low as possible,” said Berkenpas, adding that under normal circumstances between 40,000 and 60,000 workers are on site in the oil sands mines every day. from the Wood Buffalo region in the north of the country. Alberta.

“Right now, in most cases, there are between 40 and 65% fewer personnel than there would be during normal operations. “

The regular Christmas lull along with the extremely cold weather that slows down some maintenance platforms also contributes to the reduction in activity at the sites, Berkenpas said. But he said that sooner rather than later, companies will want to scale up again – and Omicron’s dynamic nature means there’s a lot of uncertainty about when and how that will happen.

During previous waves of the pandemic, the oil sands camps in Alberta have been the source of major outbreaks of the virus. Thousands of COVID-19 cases have been linked to oil sands production facilities in the spring of 2020 and then again in the spring of 2021, when the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo was forced to declare a state of emergency due to the increase in cases.

It is not known how many oil sands workers are currently sick with COVID-19 during this current Omicron wave. The only oil sands facility currently listed on the Alberta Health website as an outbreak site is Suncor Energy Inc.’s Fort Hills site – which the ministry says has been linked to 266 cases, all but three of which. have already recovered.

Berkenpas said he could not provide an update on the number of cases for the oil sands, although he acknowledged that official government figures may not be an accurate description of the situation given the accessibility. rapid home test kits that allow workers to forgo a PCR test.

“I will say that we are seeing less problems on the spot than I think we are seeing in the general population at this point,” he said. “But it becomes more of a challenge as soon as we try to increase a certain level of activity.”

Last spring, oil sands operators partnered with Alberta Health Services to host COVID-19 vaccination clinics at work camps and sites in the Wood Buffalo area. Berkenpas said 17,000 to 18,000 vaccines had been administered during these campaigns, although no similar clinics on site have yet been established to offer boosters.

An outbreak at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon camp. (CNRL) in the spring of 2021 became the largest workplace outbreak in Canada and resulted in the deaths of three workers.

This company has made full vaccination mandatory for all on-site workers and contractors, and company spokesperson Julie Woo said in an email that there had been “minimal” impact. On CNRL’s operations due to Omicron.

Woo said CNRL also had other extensive measures in place to prevent transmission, including documented daily health checks, screening protocols before boarding public transport, physical distancing measures at its facilities. camp and dining room and the compulsory wearing of a mask indoors.

Imperial Energy Corp. and Cenovus Energy said they continue to operate safely and have strong sanitation measures in place at their sites, including encouraging vaccination and applying rapid field tests.

Suncor Energy Inc. did not respond to a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on January 7, 2022.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

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Richard V. Johnson