Franklin Spragins was a risk taking engineer and a visionary business leader whose efforts led to the successful development of Canada’s oil sands industry. He was the founding president of Syncrude Canada, which operates the largest surface mine and mineral processing facility in North America and is now Canada’s largest source of oil and its second largest producer. But without his leadership, this company, which has developed an impressive range of surface mining technologies and injected billions of dollars into Alberta and Canada’s economy, might never have started up.
Spragins was born in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1914. He was raised and educated in Texas, where he received a B.Sc. degree in Electrical Engineering from Rice University in 1938. After graduation, he worked in his home state before moving to Canada in 1942 to join Imperial Oil (he became a Canadian citizen “by choice”). In the early years, he was active in exploration work in Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and was a member of the geophysical team that participated in the discovery of both the Leduc and Redwater oil fields.
In 1949, Spragins became the first manager of a special department established by Imperial to carry out corporate objectives with respect to oil sands development. In 1965, Syncrude Canada was founded to provide a management vehicle for that effort, and Spragins was named its first president. During those crucial early years, he was a forceful advocate of the oil sands project and spent years researching its technical and economic viability. He kept investor and government interest alive until commitments were made to develop this important resource, much to the benefit of Canadians.
Spragins believed that oil sands could help Canada achieve self sufficiency for its energy needs. Indeed, as early as 1962, he correctly predicted a decline in the producing ability of the western Canadian sedimentary basin and stressed the need to develop alternative sources. Today, oil sands account for an increasing portion of Canada’s oil energy supply. The industry now expects to supply fully half of Canada’s needs by 2020 and could sustain the country for many more decades.
Throughout his career, Spragins was a champion of research and development. His accomplishments with respect to mining technology are particularly noteworthy. Under his influence, draglines and bucketwheels were designed, which dwarfed those in use elsewhere. But perhaps his most significant and enduring contribution was his focus on research and development. He recognized that oil sand, which is highly abrasive, sticky and mined under difficult weather conditions, required technology different from that used to extract more conventionally mined materials. Spragins established the Syncrude Research Centre in the 1960s, and today it is a world leader in oil sands technology, mining technology, research and development and operations.
Spragins established Syncrude’s Aboriginal Development Program, which laid the groundwork for the progressive reputation in native affairs the organization enjoys today.
Because of Spragins’ leadership, Syncrude Canada has become a great Canadian energy and mining success story. It is, without a doubt, his greatest legacy, and established him as a mining industry leader with foresight and ability.