Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:
A Complete Guide
Rebranding in Progress
When people think of Fort McMurray, the city at the heart of the oil sands, they think of a Wild West frontier town filled with aggressive young men looking to blow off steam and fat wads of cash after long, tough shifts in the wilderness. I was a little disappointed to find this wasn’t all that accurate. There are certainly flashes of boom town here and there, but I came away with the impression the city is being consciously shaped by the oil companies into a wealthy and thriving company town where, it is hoped, people will stay to start families. The people who call this place home are strenuously trying to make the latter image the one people think of when they think "Fort McMurray".
The first thing you notice when driving along the last stretch of highway into Fort McMurray are the trucks. Enormous tractor-trailers fully loaded with a single tire for some leviathan machine, or wide-load 18-wheelers carrying hundred-ton steam vessels. And you also notice the pickup trucks. The roads are gridlocked with them, thousands of them, every variant of the Ford F-Series, the Dodge Ram, the GMC Sierra and the Chevy Silverado. They are caked in mud, emblazoned with company logos and sporting tall orange pennants called buggy whips (to make them visible to operators of the giant machines that might squish them). Many have lift kits, chrome rims and custom paint jobs.
The popularity of the pickup truck owes not just to the macho self-image automakers strive to promote and market, but to their rugged practicality. Almost no work in the oil sands can get done without trucks and nothing but trucks can access most of the dirt roads where the work has to get done. Most companies simply pay employees one or two hundred dollars a day to put a decal on the door of their vehicle and use it for work. The truck is the birthright of the oil worker and pretty much everyone has one, and probably a quad and a ski-do too. Truck fever is admittedly infectious. Before I’d been to Alberta my dream car was an Audi or an Infiniti. Now, without a doubt, I want a truck. Spend enough time in Fort McMurray and even the staunchest vegan hippie will catch themselves sniggering at Smart Cars and Fiats.
On the Approach to Fort McMurray
A majority of these trucks are driven by young men, but not as many as you might imagine. The population is only skewed in favour of males 57% to 43%, and many thousands of women drive their trucks to work in the oil field too. Most people are young—the average age is 31—and most of them are rich—the median family income is $187,000 a year, the highest in Canada by a lot.
As you drive through downtown Fort McMurray you’ll see parts of the downtown cater to the traditional boomtown industries of alcohol, sex and drugs. A number of price-gouging pubs are crowded into strip malls downtown (including one catering to Newfies) in addition to more up-scale establishments like Earls, the Wood Buffalo Brew Pub and Podollans (best burgers in town). Posters remind people that the world must choose between pumping oil from friendly, democratic Canada or from Hugo Chavez's socialist authoritarian Venezuela. Homeless push carts down Franklin Ave and congregate around the 7/11 service station in the heart of the city. They offer passersby bags of crack steps away from the RCMP detachment. A small crowd of unsavoury characters regularly gather outside the Boomtown Casino. A few blocks down you’ll find the dilapidated Showgirls strip club, where the parking lot fills with company trucks after 10pm. The less boisterous opt for the new adult video store across the street.
The Boom Town Side
This is the side of town most people know about and foreign journalists obsess over. Yet this side of Fort McMurray is fast fading. A radio segment, “the Fort McMurray Minute, a look at our city’s past,” recalls how in the 1970s, when this really was a Wild West oil boomtown, every Friday people would set up chairs on Franklin Street, the main downtown thoroughfare, to watch huge bar brawls spill out of the Oil Can and onto the street. It seemed almost nostalgic. You won’t see that anymore.
The rowdiest bars, Diggers and the Oil Can, were recently shuttered. High-end condominiums and retirement homes are going up. World class recreational facilities are opening their doors. Keyano College is expanding rapidly and pumping out graduates, many of whom will put down roots in the city. Crime is down. The city’s center of gravity is shifting to the comfy new suburbs of Timberlea and Thickwood Heights.
Residents are almost unanimously loyal to Fort McMurray and bristle at negative media depictions in international publications like GQ, Chatelaine and the Guardian. Read any news story on Fort McMurray that takes the testosterone-cocaine-prostitution-boom-town angle and you’ll find the comments section inundated with outraged responses from the people who actually live there.
Comments on the GQ Story "No Country for Young Men," which described Fort Mac as "synonymous with crime, an explosion in prostitution and the tough, young, bored single men with too much money and too little to do who are fuelling the chaos. Fort McMurray is a town in the boom and on the brink."
Initially I thought these people were suffering from a pariah complex. Whenever an international photographer, documentary-maker or celebrity announces a visit to the region there's an eruption of nervous speculation. Spurned as they've been time and again by luminaries like Neil Young and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the people of Fort McMurray assume they will be attacked and villified by rich celebrities who've flown into the region on a carbon-intensive private jet to do a little blasted wasteland tourism. This was best illustrated last summer when Leonardo Dicaprio announced a visit. Before he had even said anything, radio DJ's, local politicians and virtually everyone else began accusing DiCaprio of not giving them a fair shake and understanding that people need to make a living.
But then I watched Vice’s documentary TOXIC ALBERTA and I couldn't help but begin to come around to their point of view. The narrator Eddy Moretti flew out from his Manhattan office and absolutely oozed smarm while his interviewees painted the city as a land of shattered lives and broken dreams. Where did he find these people? Almost everybody seems to like it in Fort McMurray. He stood outside the evil gates of Suncor and pondered how long it would be till security came out and detained him, as if it were some top secret facility like Area 51. He is probably aware there are tours available but that would be boring and take more work. It concluded with him gesturing towards a tailings pond and shaking his head, “This is terrible, just terrible,” before hopping on a plane back to New York City. It's very easy to show up for a couple days, make a hatchet job documentary, and then return to a carbon-intensive lifestyle with a feeling of smug satisfaction.
More Cypress Creek than Dawson City
The truth is you really can find a ‘dark’ side comparable or worse than Fort McMurray’s in any city, and the ‘frozen wild West oil boom town’ angle is played out. The story that is actually interesting is how the oil companies are singlehandedly engineering the city into a place where reliable, productive and skilled workers can live, and the local and provincial governments are just along for the ride. You’d do a better job comparing it to Cypress Creek, the town Homer Simpson moves to for his new job at Hank Scorpio’s nefarious Globex Corporation, than the Klondike's Dawson City. Allow me to explain.
For a city of its size Fort McMurray is fantastically well-appointed with brand new recreation centres, trail networks and technical schools. Virtually all of the buildings bear an oil company’s logo: The Suncor Community Leisure Centre, Syncrude Athletic Park, the Casman Centre, Shell Place. The trail network nestled between Timberlea and Thickwood Heights is the most beautiful and well-maintained I’ve ever been on; an oil company stewards each trail. The buildings of Keyano College and the Father Mecredi Technical School sport oil company logos and are filled with the latest equipment and teaching apparatus. Students’ studies are subsidized as they are rushed through vocational training and then snapped up by the various oil and construction companies for jobs that start at $120,000 a year.
The radio constantly advertises golf tournaments, food drives, art exhibitions, concerts, every kind of public event. Without exception they are sponsored by Nexen, Shell, Syncrude, Suncor, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Total or one of the multitude of others. There was even the bizarre ‘Sustainavil,’ billed as the world’s first ‘green’ carnival. Each oil giant had its own carnival ride while eager representatives talked about running cars on vegetable oil and building wind farms, apparently without a hint of irony. There wasn’t a single mention of the 800-pound gorilla in the room: bitumen.
The New Fort McMurray
The Bizarre Sustainival
At the same time the provincial and municipal governments appear weak and inept. Corruption scandals emanate from the premier’s office in Edmonton and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s dinky little office on Franklin Avenue. Both governments are simultaneously reeling from expenses scandals. Alberta’s premier Alison Redford was forced to resign while dozens of RMWB staffers quit and were paid millions of dollars to sign non-disclosure agreements, raising questions about what unsavoury behavior they were aware of.
Despite their enormous salaries, bureaucrats and politiicans at both levels of government point fingers at each other over the failure to adequately address Fort McMurray’s infrastructure deficit. Construction of housing, roads and schools lags far behind population growth and there is nowhere to put all the new people. Some of the new housing is of shoddy quality. Dozens of families moved into one major housing development downtown only to have firemen burst in at 2am and give them fifteen minutes to evacuate, fearing the building might collapse at any moment. That was years ago. Since then nobody has been allowed back in and the buildings, sitting on prime real estate, have lain dormant for years and turned into a ludicrous Chernobyl-esque urban blight. The unfortunate owners are still on the hook for monthly mortgage payments.
Though the oil companies are essentially printing money in the oil sands, the Alberta government somehow still manages to run deficits. A scathing report from the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives illustrates just how much fantastically better a job Norway, another industrialized nation that exports oil, is doing managing their oil wealth.
Instead it seems evident the oil companies actually run Fort McMurray, and perhaps Alberta too. Perhaps even Canada itself—Stephen Harper began his career with Imperial Oil after all. The local and provincial governments have apparentely been staffed with stooges intent on lining their pockets with taxpayer dollars and oil company largesse all the while failing in their duty to hold oil companies to account. The showy investments by the oil companies in Fort McMurray, while welcome and making the city a better place to live, may also be contributing to the government's dogged defense of the oil companies and their conduct, when the government should be the ones carefully scrutinizing all of the oil companies behaviour. It all gives one the impression that everyone is being bought off, from the man on Franklin Avenue all the way up to the premier of Alberta. The failure to ensure proper legislation is in place to force oil companies to pay for reclamation, as mentioned in Part 4, is but one glaring example.
The Perilous Path Ahead
It is a peculiar convergence of technology, economics and environmental awareness that has made the oil sands at once both immensely valuable and immensely dangerous. They are a one time endowment from the earth and the wealth we could derive from them has the potential to reshape not only the province, but the whole country. Norway's management of their oil wealth is a fine example we could aspire to. Yet these resources could also be easily squandered, doing terrible and lasting harm in the process.
We should be careful the bitumen sucked from the muskeg does not poison our democracy, as it already seems to be doing. Nor should we allow exploitation of this resource to become a one-time cash grab that merely allows us to put off the looming day of reckoning with oil scarcity and climate change. Instead we must use the time and money the oil sands give us to immediately embark upon the long-needed transition to a post-oil economy.
Do not buy into the false dichotomy of 'oil sands vs. no oil sands'. Because the oil sands are so extremely valuable we can afford to press oil companies to develop the oil sands in a responsible manner. We can use the wealth they generate to help shape this nation's future. This seems the only way to craft a national political consensus that unites the people of Canada, business and government behind a single effort to save ourselves from ourselves. The political party that proposes such a bold, coherent, and far-seeing vision must surely be rewarded with electoral success.