James Carter is a giant in the history of Canada’s oil sands and an exemplary leader in their sustainable development. He transformed the fledgling industry — and the frontier town of Fort McMurray, Alberta — into a powerful economic engine for the nation while building Syncrude Canada into one of the world’s largest and most successful energy producers. During his 28-year career with Syncrude, Carter revolutionized the oil sands industry through bold innovation. He championed development of the world’s largest trucks and shovels and introduced hydro-transport of oil sands and other leading-edge technologies that cost-effectively improved the industry’s performance. He was a pioneering advocate of Aboriginal hiring and business development, and also contributed to the creation of Towards Sustainable Mining, a guidance tool for corporate social responsibility (CSR) launched by the Mining Association of Canada (MAC). His commitment to research and education is best exemplified by his pivotal efforts to preserve and build the University of Alberta’s Mining Engineering program.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Carter emigrated to Canada with his family in 1959, settling in Prince Edward Island. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in mining engineering from the Nova Scotia Technical College in 1973. He joined Syncrude in 1979 and became vice-president of operations a decade later, after completing a management program at the Harvard Graduate School of Business.
He recognized the need for economies of scale in the oil sands early in his career and made the controversial decision to switch to 170-ton trucks from those half that capacity. He later worked with suppliers to develop the world’s largest shovels and the world’s largest 400-tonne capacity trucks. He also introduced the first patented hydro-transport of oil sand, which rendered conveyor belts obsolete and allowed satellite operations to be linked to distant extraction facilities. This breakthrough combined with the use of large-scale mining equipment reduced the energy required to produce a barrel of bitumen by 40%, with economic and environmental benefits. During his term as president from 1997 to 2007, Syncrude’s production rose from approximately 200,000 barrels to 350,000 barrels per day, while its market capitalization grew from $3 billion to approximately $45 billion.
Carter was a proactive and respected advocate of responsible development. During his tenure, Syncrude became the single largest employer of Aboriginal people, and 20 years later, more than 200 Aboriginal-owned companies conduct an estimated $1-billion of annual business with the industry. As a board member and later Chair of MAC, he was a driving force behind the creation and implementation of the Towards Sustainable Mining program, now at the cutting edge of CSR practice in Canada and globally. In the early 1990s, Carter marshalled industry leaders to rescue the struggling University of Alberta’s Mining Engineering program and build it into the successful institution it is today. He also helped launch an innovative apprenticeship program for skilled trades that has helped thousands of young people launch their careers.
Carter has received many awards for his achievements, including three honorary doctorates, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, and the Order of Canada in 2014.