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Keep going far enough north of the Montana border and the vast open rolling spaces, sweep past the metropolitan city of Calgary and become boreal forest.
Every bit as vast and extensive as the prairie, the boreal forest, flecked with lakes and ponds, stretches in every direction as far as one can see, as one peers from the window of an airplane. At this time of year, the primordial forest is mottled with the yellow patches of aspen trees amid the dark green of larch and jack pine, with a brilliant blue sky for back drop. Any one from Montana would feel comfortable here.
As one soon learns, in this neck of the woods, part of this great vastness are the oil sands. They stretch for 54,000 square miles (more than a third of Montana) and we are landing right in the middle of it. But for all that, the mineable oil sands comprise only about four percent, about 1330 square miles of the total oil sands and only 0.1 percent of the boreal forest.
We are landing at Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada – part of a media tour courtesy of Shell Oil Company, which wants the world to learn what’s happening in what is the second largest reserve of oil in the world – second only to Saudi Arabia. The Canadian oil sands are estimated to contain the equivalent of 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, of which about 173 billion are recoverable with current technology.
Given the proximity of this world-impacting natural resource to Billings, it seemed a no-brainer to take up the tour offer when it came. Much of Billings’ economic activity is already the result of the development of oil sands along the Athabasca River. The future of our economy will undoubtedly be inextricably linked to that of the oil sands – for at least as long as the world is interested in hydrocarbons as fuel. That’s how long the oil sands are expected to keep producing fuel, according to our tour guide, Janet Annesley, Manager of Oil Sands Communications for Shell and a former student of the University of Montana.
Mining and development of the Canadian oil sands has been going on for the past 45 years, but has only recently been discovered by the world news media, and much of what they are reporting paints an alarming picture about environmental impacts.
One can understand the alarm in seeing the open pits gouged out of the earth, four or five miles square, watching the shovels and trucks moving tons of ore at a relentless pace, or in traveling miles down a road, along which there is nothing but excavation, building, tailings ponds, and crowded traffic. If disruption of a remote and peaceful landscape is the gauge by which one measures, then there is much here to be concerned about.
As Shell administrators began to read and hear from media reports all over the world that the developers of oil sands were wreaking one of the greatest disasters on the planet ever witnessed, “We realized that we have not been communicating very well,” said Annesley, in explaining the reason her company started the tours.
Young, bright and capable, Annesley herded a group of some 15 journalists and several Shell execs around the far reaches of northern Canada for five days. Journalists were from Canada, the United Kingdom, Finland, Germany and the US.
The Shell execs included the United Kingdom Country Chairman, James Smith. Like the other Shell representatives, he came to find out what this aspect of his company’s ventures is all about. With the increased media exposure, said Smith, he was being frequently asked about the oil sands as he spoke to the public. He figured he better find out first-hand.
Smith was just part of the tour group, filing along with the rest of us as we shifted from planes to taxis to buses and donned steel-toed boots, goggles, hard-hats, safety vests and gloves. Trying to keep track of all these moving parts, as well as notebooks, cameras and materials collected along the way, was a struggle as we moved from one site to another, going through security checks at every turn, climbing stairs, mounds of oil sand, or hiking up hill sides, traversing refineries, shops and conference rooms. Each day was a full day.
Shell has interests world-wide and is one of the largest oil companies in the world, but they are relative new-comers to the oil sands. They are better known locally as Albian Sands, the subsidiary name under which their oil sands venture operates. “’Shell’ is the service station,” explained Annesley – and indeed there is a Shell service station in Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray, as its name implies, is an historic outpost which served early explorers and fur traders, but today it’s a boom town in every respect, serving the entire oil sands development.
Syncrude and Suncor Energy are the other producers of oil sands in Alberta, with Suncor having been the first. But, with the world abuzz about Canadian oil sands, it’s projected that over the next decade more than $100 billion will be invested in northern Alberta oil sands, eventually involving all of the world’s major oil companies. And, in that decade, oil sands is expected to surpass deep-water offshore wells as the single largest source of new global supply.
From 2000-2007, an estimated $67 billion was invested in oil sands projects in Alberta. Another $170 billion in oil sands related projects are at some stage of development.
The first leg of our tour actually began in Calgary. Sprawling high, wide and handsome across the prairie, with some one million people, there is about Calgary a kinetic aura snapping with the energy of an oil boom town. It’s an electric feel I had forgotten, having experienced it before during the oil boom days of Billings.
Bold and unapologetic “oil art” graced the walls of hotels and restaurants in Calgary — a subtle culture difference, to the say the least, but understandable when one realizes how many oil companies have their headquarters in Calgary. When the head of the Canadian Petroleum Industry Association was asked why their headquarters were in downtown Calgary rather than the capital, he said that it seemed like the best place to be, once they realized that the headquarters of 150 of their members was with 15 minutes walking distance.
The cultural difference was every bit as apparent in listening to people who represent Alberta’s government. I can’t recall ever hearing such positive, upbeat talk about business and industry, coming from agents of government, as that which I heard around the conference table at our first gathering on the 23rd floor of the Shell Oil building in Calgary.
There was a firmness and resoluteness in the words of Christopher Holly, Acting Director of Communications for Alberta Energy, as he explained how Alberta came to the decision to develop its oil sands. Alberta faces some of the same obstacles to economic growth as does Montana, and as in Montana, Alberta has “a lot of assets in the ground.”
Alberta’s government decided, in the early 70s, in order to provide more opportunities for its citizens, to embrace one of its biggest natural resource assets and began an experimental effort to extract the bitumen or crude oil suspended in the sands along three of its major water ways, Peace River, Cold Lake and Athabasca. It was the Albertan government which launched the entity that was to later become the privately held Suncore Energy.
Today one in thirteen jobs in Alberta is directly related to energy. Almost 147,000 Albertans are employed in the province’s oil and gas extraction industry. Thousands more in the service sectors which support the industry. By 2020 those employed in the basic industry is expected to reach 200,000 as the industry invests billions more. “This might be one of the biggest industrial projects in the world, in terms of total investment,” said Annesley.
Of significance to Montana is the projection that the oil sands are expected to produce almost as many jobs outside Alberta as within, generating more than five-million person years of employment – one –third of which will be created outside Alberta, and four out of every five jobs will start outside the oil sector.
The people of Alberta own the oil sands resource, and industry purchases the right to explore for, extract and develop it. Industry pays royalties to the Alberta government. In the 2006-07 fiscal year the province collected $2.4 billion in royalties from oil sands production, and has since increased the royalty rates.
“We believe oil sands are competitive and we continue to see investment as the price of oil goes up,” said Holly, speaking of course during the first week of October, before oil prices started to go down. Since then oil sand companies in Alberta have announced that they will cut back in planned investment over the coming year, because of the price declines, but current production will not cease.
Market commentators are saying that the delayed investments are bad news because it means supply will lag even more behind demand when markets rebound, and oil prices will soar higher than ever before.
That oil sands production can continue, shouldn’t be too surprising when one considers that capitalization of the oil sands began when oil prices were much lower and that’s what business models were based upon. Shell made the decision to invest in 1997 when the price of oil was $10 a barrel,” said Annesley, explaining further, “You invest the capital and ride out all the fluctuations.” So, with oil prices at $60 a barrel, oil sands crude will continue to flow. The companies only begin to make profits though when the price reaches $90 – plus per barrel, according to recent market reports.
On October 31, Shell announced that they would delay a $12.8-billion, 100,000-barrel-per-day expansion at their Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP). Shell holds a 60 percent ownership in AOSP, with other investors being Chevron Canada and Marathon Oil Sands. Albian Sands Energy, Inc., a company created by the joint venture, operates the mine, while Shell operates the Scottford Uprgrader at Edmonton. Albian Sands began production in 1999.
In 2007, Shell’s share of mined oil sands averaged 81,000 barrels per day. Their earnings in 2007 were $582 million.
AOSP includes the Muskeg River Mine, which we toured. Annesley said that allowing visitors to tour the mine has become a rarity, given the extreme emphasis the company places on safety. Shell had 56 million man hours logged with no injuries, said Annesley, until just a year ago when an employee was killed. His pickup was run over by a giant ore truck. It was an accident that could happen easily enough, given that drivers of the one-and-a-half-story- high vehicles can’t see anything for the first 150 feet near the vehicle. Since then few visitations have been allowed into the pit and those who do come must have an escort.
It was hard to believe, at the beginning of October, that the weather could be as warm as it was. Getting back onto the air conditioned bus was always a welcomed relief. But, warned John Rhind, chief of operations at the Muskeg River Mine, “This weather will not last.” Winter is hard and long, he said, which is why he so covets every opportunity on the golf course. The week of our visit was the last that the golf courses were to remain open, he lamented.
Production of mining oil sands continues unabated in the winter, said Rhind; winter is actually a more productive time. Problems only arise if they have to shut equipment down — it is hard to get it started again in sub-zero temperatures. Forest fires in the summer quite often require shut downs which make it a less productive season.
Before our venture into the pit, Rhind explained about “bitumen,” which is at the heart of the quest of it all. It is crude oil “that won’t flow on its own conditions”— a thick viscous substance, the consistency of molasses. Its presence makes the soil, which is like beach sand, lump together in blackish gray clods. The smell, which permeates the air wherever the soil has been disturbed, is like that of an old garage.
The percentage of bitumen in the soil varies from six to 16 percent, “with 16 percent being very rich,” according to Greg Stringham, Vice President of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
As we saw in the pit, sometimes it becomes so warm in the sun that the bitumen does flow. We occasionally saw cuts in the banks of the pit, where it ran in black shinny ribbon-like streams, pooling at the bottom.
We were told before arriving at the mine that we should be aware not to stand too long in one place. “You can feel yourself sinking if you pay attention to it,” said Annesley. While I felt the yielding of the earth underfoot, sinking wasn’t much of a concern to me; what amazed me was to see the earth cave inward under the weight of one of their 400-ton trucks, and to see it spring back in their wake.
There are two ways to extract the bitumen. Mining is the least costly but only about 20 percent of the recoverable oil sands is close enough to the surface to be feasible for mining. In-situ – or drilling – must be used to extract the deeper reserves. In all of Alberta there are 87 active oil sands projects, of which only three are mining projects and the rest are in-situ. Shell has three mines under construction and eight insitu-operations in the planning.
Most of the resource that is mined is within 250 feet of the surface. The mining process is similar to that of mining for coal. They have in fact borrowed much from open pit coal mining processes – and have hired US coal miners. The Muskeg Mine manager, Todd Dahlman, is a native of Butte.
Initially they even used modified coal mining equipment like the “long wall”, but that’s been set aside as the bucket and shovel method has been found to be far more efficient and economical.
The shovels and trucks used are nothing but BIG. “We are a huge dirt moving operation,” understated Annesley.
About 35 shovels operate around the clock at the Muskeg Mine. They are built in Wisconsin, run on 13,800 volts of electricity, and each swipe of the bucket brings up 100 tons of ore, with four shovelfuls filling one of the 797B Caterpillar trucks – the largest truck in the world. One truck load of ore makes enough gas to run your car for its entire lifetime. (It takes one ton of ore to make one barrel of oil.)
A truck costs $6 million – talk about sticker-shock! A tire (weighing as much as five cars) costs $60,000 and tires are not included when you buy a truck. There is a waiting list for both trucks and tires.
Just for the record, according to Rhind, women have proved to be the best drivers, at least when it comes to getting the longest life out of a vehicle.
The excavated sands are moved to a cleaning facility and “upgrader.” Using hot water, the bitumen is separated from the sand and other materials. It is upgraded to synthetic crude oil and shipped to other markets. Some of it is refined in Edmonton while some of it goes to the US – including the three refineries in Billings — for refining.
Alberta is working to expand its “value added” capacities, including the upgrading, refining and petrochemical industries. While much of the processing of their crude goes out of the province currently, “it is a mandate to see if we can capture more of that value here,” said Holly, adding however, “While Alberta likes the value-added business, we have strict parameters.”
Underground in-situ extraction requires pumping heated water or steam deep into the earth to loosen the bitumen, causing it to pool in perforated pipes, which allows it to be pumped to the surface, similar to conventional oil wells. An advantage of in-situ is that it disturbs little of the surface and reclamation is much easier and less expensive.
Whether mining or in-situ, both processes require huge amounts of energy and of water. So much energy does it take to produce a barrel of oil that that is one source of criticism from environmentalists about oil sands development. It’s claimed that it takes one-third of a barrel of oil to produce the energy needed to produce one barrel of synthetic crude. That’s three times more than that required in the production of oil from conventional drilling – the process which would be used in the extraction of oil from all those reserves that the US declared off-limits.
Producers of oil sands crude disagree with the extrapolations of their critics. They point out that if one considers the total amount of energy used in the production of a gallon of gas from “ground to ground,” then that from oil sands consumes only 15 percent more energy to process from the time it is pulled from the earth until it is put into the gas tank of a vehicle. The up-front processing of oil sands, which is so energy intensive, winds up delivering to refineries a crude oil which doesn’t require as much energy to refine, they say.
The issue is important, politically, because the US Congress has placed a ban on using Canadian oil sands and special interests are trying to sway policy in states like California to prohibit the purchase of Canadian crude with the claim that it is “dirty energy.”
The subject was one which dominated “table talk” on the tour, and augmented their interest in the US presidential election, which seemed to be more keenly followed by the Canadians and foreign reporters than it was by US citizens. Alberta producers are concerned because the United States is the primary target market for their crude, especially states like California which will soon be looking for new sources to replace Alaskan oil, which is anticipated to decline in production.
Canada is already the number one exporter of oil to the US. Of the 18 percent of total US crude imports to the US from Canada, 13 percent comes from Alberta.
Since the oil sands development began, one of the most pronounced changes in society has been environmental awareness. But during that same period regulations have tightened and mitigation methods have improved, and technological innovations have led to improvement in environmental performance, said Don Thompson, President of the Oil Sands Developers Group.
“The environment will always continue to become a more onerous issue with which to deal,” concedes Thompson , adding, “Society demands that. It should be part of our mindset at the outset.” But it doesn’t happen, he said, “without a tremendous amount of effort.”
Various agencies and organizations monitor the impacts of the oil sands operations, comprised of multiple stakeholders and using a consensus based approach, said Thompson – organizations like the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, Cumulative Environmental Management Association, and Terrestrial Monitoring & Restoration.
There is much emphasis about the involvement of the various Indian tribes indigenous to the area – called First Nations in Canada. They are among the first consulted with any planned development, and are involved in all planning and monitoring groups. There is considerable emphasis placed, as well, on the economic impacts for First Nations. They are strongly encouraged to participate in spin-off economic benefits by starting their own companies to provide support services.
There were no representatives of First Nations, nor of any environmental organizations, who presented to our group. There were tribal members, however, who drove our buses – a service for which Shell contracted with a First Nations’ company.
Reading other news reports about what the environmental concerns are regarding the oil sands developments, they most have to do with fears. They are concerned about potential problems and uncertain about the soundness of the testing and monitoring that is being done by the various agencies.
According to the oil companies they frequently assert as problems things about which they have gotten wrong — touching back to the reasons Shell decided they had to work harder at informing the public about what is going on.
Among the environmental complaints is that very little land has been reclaimed to date.
Thompson reported that there have been 420 square kilometers of oil sands which have been disturbed. Of that, 65 square kilometers have been reclaimed and less than one square kilometer has been certified. Reclamation costs about $25,000 per hectare – a hectare is about 2.5 acres.
We had a picnic lunch, under the warm October sun, on some of the land reclaimed by Syncrude at a place called Gateway Hill. It was indiscernible from that which had never been disturbed. The trees were mature and the undergrowth thick, A tailings pond that was still some years off to becoming a clean lake spread before us below the hill upon which a parking lot accommodated visitors. An occasional muffled “boom” could be heard in the distance. It was a preventive measure taken to scare away water fowl from landing on the water which still poses a health hazard.
After lunch we visited a range where a population of wood bison have been transplanted and are apparently thriving. We hiked up a hill above the bison – swatting all the while at bugs which were also thriving — and viewed a wetland area that has been fully reclaimed. Wetlands, we were told, comprise about 40 percent of the boreal forest and how to redevelop them is an on-going cutting-edge science, which quite excites the young environmental engineers involved.
“The Alberta regulatory process is second to none,” said Thompson, reflecting a consistent theme of pride in regulations that was common to most of the people to whom we talked. To some extent the environmental regulatory establishment seemed to be chaffing under world criticism that the provincial government of Alberta is too much in lock-step with the industry, and the industry resents being accused of being indifferent to the environment.
“There are strong economic incentives for the companies to reclaim the land,” said Thomspson. Part of that incentive is the requirement to return the land to “The Crown” in as good a condition as that in which “The Crown” released it for exploration and extraction of resources. The Crown will not accept the land back until it has been “certified” as fully reclaimed.
Thompson said that it should be understandable that little land has been certified. “The industry is young,” he said. It takes the better part of 20 years for growth to return. So given the time frame of when mining began, only the very first pits could, in all practicality, even be near certification status. In addition, some areas of reclaimed land border operating mines. Certification means that the land becomes open to the public again. Giving the public uncontrolled access so close to the mines would pose a safety and liability risk for the companies, so even when qualified the companies are not anxious to have the lands certified, for the time being.
Before the first shovel of dirt is turned to open a mine, “we have a clear path, all the way to closure,” in place, explained Steve Gaudet, Manager of Environmental Services for Syncrude. Part of the plan includes having set aside the full cost of reclaiming every acre – or hectare – before it is ever disturbed.
Gaudet’s earnestness and occasional comments, while a bit more pointed, sounded indicative of the frustration many seemed to feel about the lack of understanding about what they do. It was obvious that they believe they are doing a good job mitigating their impacts and complying with regulations. Gaudet said that he didn’t believe they deserve the name of “dirty oil.” “Shouldn’t we be judged by our reclamation? By how we are cleaning up and how we work with stakeholders?” he asked.
Besides overseeing the reclamation process, Gaudet is constantly engaged with finding new and better ways of doing things – no one is more on the cutting edge of reclamation research and technology. The companies collaborate with each other and with regulating governmental agencies, as well as conferring with environmental watch-dog groups, in developing new approaches and experimenting with new ideas to make reclamation efforts better. Given that the business of reclamation is in its infancy, there is much to learn.
There have been mistakes. Not long ago, the booming guns over a Shell tailings pond failed to function, and a flock of ducks landed on the water infused with “oil and grease.” It became the news heard-round-the-world. Outrage about the demise of the birds was broadly expressed, and the entire oil sands endeavor was called into question, by the media. But they failed to bring it into context, pointed out Annesley. While there was failure on Shell’s efforts to protect the birds, none of the news reports explained that birds fall victim, every day in the oil sands region, landing on natural waters which are naturally polluted.
Interestingly, one of the Canadian reporters agreed with claims of the reports being unbalanced. She said that she had written an editorial pointing out that while the dead ducks made headlines, most publications failed to give even an inside paragraph to the death of the employee who was killed by one of the big trucks during that same week.
The first tailings pond will be fully reclaimed by 2010, according to Thompson.
That brings forth another issue about which the companies are sensitive. It seems that reporters tend to readily use the word “toxic” when talking about tailings ponds, leaving an impression that the oil sands operations are somehow adding pollutants to the land. But, while the ponds pose health hazards at this stage, there’s nothing in the ponds that wasn’t there before the bitumen was removed. All that’s in a tailings pond is sand, silt, a small amount of bitumen and a small amount of salt, said Thompson, “It’s not too much changed from what it was before.” But, the materials need time to settle out. Researchers are experimenting to see if there are things that can be done that will cause the settling process to happen faster and allow ponds to be smaller.
After eleven years, they have found “no detectable change in aquatic ecosystem health related to oil sands.” But then, there is no discharge allowed into the Athabasca River. Of course, since the river flows through oil sands it naturally has bitumen in it— it is naturally “polluted.” “It is the way it is,” said Thompson.
The water that can be withdrawn from the river for industry use is capped at one percent of the lowest flow of the river ever recorded. The industry used 0.4 percent of the average flow in 2006. The oil companies withdraw water in the spring when the river is at its highest levels and they store it. As much as 90 percent of the water used by the facilities is recycled from the tailings ponds.
Regulators have left it up to the industry how they will apportion the water under the caps. “It’s a very entrepreneurial approach,” said Thompson, “You regulate outcomes,” rather than attempting to direct industry how to reach those outcomes. The approach is one which is less costly for government to enforce and allows for innovations and improvements.
In-situ operations can usually find underground non-potable water to use.
Thompson tells that after 15 years of monitoring they have detected little impact from oil sands activity on air quality, with 99.98 percent of the sulfur recovered. What to do with all that sulfur, which is currently being stored, is still a problem to be solved.
Ironically one of the concerns is not about negative impacts on the environment but about what some see as the threat of actually improving it, such as would happen with the deposit of nitrogen which would fertilize the area and improve the growth of foliage.
Carbon emissions, caps, sequestration, deadlines and goals were more a topic of conversation on the tour than any other topic, among not only the industry representatives, but the reporters from other countries. The issue seems to be a fully integrated part of life in other parts of the world, far more so than in the US. And, in fact some reporters indicated astonishment to be told that the US has yet to enact any kind of carbon caps, restrictions or goals. So far committed are they to the necessity of such regulatory approaches, that they appeared to find it incomprehensible that anyone would question it.
But, they found it equally as bizarre that US Congressional representatives would be concerned about the opinion of their constituents regarding the US financial bailout, which dominated the news while we were on tour. That they should be so unaware of such aspects of US life and politics was kind of surprising, since they otherwise seemed confident that they knew about all things US. It was dismal to realize how much the rest of the world views the US through the one-dimensional prism of our television news and entertainment programs.
There was only one comment that weighed heavy upon the carbon emissions regulatory approach of the world and that came from one another UK executive. He pointed out that in some countries the established companies are pushing up the standards so that new companies will have difficulty getting started. There was no response to his comment from anyone.
In Alberta, since it so recently happened, they were excited and quite proud that the government, in July, enacted a $2 billion “kick-start” carbon capture and storage project. The project is expected to encourage the development of facilities that will capture and permanently store up to five million tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2015 – the equivalent, they say, of taking one million cars per year off the road. Another $2 billion program is aimed more directly at taking cars off the road, by building more public transit systems in Alberta.
In the long term the industry believes that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) will allow Alberta to bring oil sands emissions in line with, or perhaps even lower than, those produced by conventional oil.
Of all the reporting that has been done following the tours the only part to which the company takes strong exception, according to Annesley, are some of the ways in which the community and Fort McMurray have been portrayed. “If you want to find out what the people are like and what they are thinking, you don’t go to the bars and hang out,” she said. If you want to know the people in the community then go to the grocer stores or out to a soccer game, said Annesley.
Canadian oil sands is a place of young people – very hard working, highly skilled and highly educated young people, making a lot of money. The average age is 39 and few jobs pay less than $100,000, but then you can’t afford to live in Fort McMurray for much less. The price of housing starts at about $800,000.
One young man in Billings tells of how he worked in the oil sands during the summers and was able to make enough each summer to pay for his next year’s college education. But the work was too hard and grueling, he said, to want to return – but then he muses, if he did he would be able to pay off his mortgage.
People come from all over the world, and especially from all over Canada. While Shell has a policy to hire locally, as much as possible, the demand for labor is just too great to find enough people locally. The Muskeg Mine manager, Tod Dahlman, said that on the day we were visiting he had 400 advertised open positions to fill. “You want a job?” he quipped.
“The competition for talent here is fierce,” said Rhind, which is a reason for a high degree of turnover from one company to another.
Of course, on the tour, most of the people we met worked for one company or another and they were all well aware they were surrounded by a bunch of reporters. But most did seem genuinely happy to be there.
Everyone talked in terms of how long they had been there. Five years, seven years, eight years, sounded like veterans. There were hints in the conversation that some came and didn’t last long. They were gone in months. Perhaps it was the lifestyle, perhaps not being able to get a toe-hold, perhaps just getting homesick so far removed from everything.
A taxi cab driver, whose accent suggested he came from a Middle Eastern country, complained that the mines were filling positions based on seniority rather than education and training. There was little doubt about his state of disgruntledness at having an education and believing himself better qualified, and yet finding work only as a cab driver.
Help wanted signs in the community were everywhere, hinting that finding jobs as bus drivers, waiters and hotel clerks is probably easy. Companies providing support services work with limited staffing; the newspaper is anxious to find reporters; and retail businesses close for the inability to find needed labor. It’s tough to compete with jobs at the mines, they say.
“The only thing good here is the money,” said one man, a former farmer from Manitoba. Though he’s been at For McMurray for seven years, he doesn’t like the cramped conditions of the community. “You can’t even put out a clothesline,” he grumbled, as someone not used to having neighbors peering over his shoulder.
The city of some 80,000 people does seem slightly cramped; but, then it must make use of every square foot because expansion requires permission of “The Crown.” “The Crown” must agree to relinquish more of the forest which grows right up to the city boundaries, explained the former farmer. That restriction in of itself would contribute greatly to the cost of housing at Fort McMurray. The relationship of the urban area to the wilderness beyond, was reminiscent of West Yellowstone. The former farmer expressed some impatience with the situation, indicating that there is official resistance to granting further use of land for suburban growth.
Nearer the mines the companies have built living quarters for workers who come to work on shorter term projects. They provide the ultimate in amenities, according to all reports – with rave reviews given to the meals provided. They add another 20,000 people to the population.
Most of what is now Fort McMurray’s suburban neighborhoods didn’t exist ten years ago, which gives one pause in realizing the incredible construction that has occurred. This construction and support services demand labor as much as the oil sand facilities and all their construction.
As we traveled through the community, we saw new schools, municipal buildings, sewer plants, roads, parks and other amenities – all perfectly planned and choreographed, ultra-modern with sweeping clean lines and perfect landscaping —sterile and homogenous enough to be an urban planners dream.
The old part of Fort McMurray was far more eclectic and hectic, a mixture of the old and new, trying to accommodate far more than what it was ever intended to do.
The man from Manitoba lamented also the lack of a “sense of community.” Though he seemed to understand it, he missed it. Every one comes with a different focus, he said, and few have plans of settling permanently, including himself. He had, in fact, toured Montana last summer with the thought of one day retiring here.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103