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Report from Fort McMurray, the Heart of Canada's Oil Sands Development

On a bus from Edmonton to Fort McMurray with students from the University of Alberta's Oil Sands Student Delegation

EDMONTON - It is 7 a.m. and I am on bus with a group of sleepy students from the University of Alberta on our way up to Fort McMurray, the heart of oil sands extraction in Alberta, a western province of Canada.

Soft conversations drift across the bus. It is still dark outside and many of the students are asleep. It’s a five-hour ride up to Fort McMurray and we have a packed two-day schedule ahead of us. The tour, planned by a student organization at the University of Alberta called the Oil Sands Student Delegation, is fully booked but I’ve managed to get a spot thanks to a late cancellation.

The undergraduate and graduate students on the trip are a diverse group. There are many mechanical and chemical engineering majors, many of whom will likely work in the industry, maybe even in Fort McMurray. But there are also students studying linguistics, business, law, art, environmental education who are simply interested in learning more about the largest industry and economic driver in their province.

The sky slowly fills with a brilliant purple and orange color as the sun begins to rise. The land here is flat with very little obstructing the horizon and the color spreads like watercolor across the entire horizon line. It’s enough to rouse sleepy students to snap some photos, and I can’t help but do the same. Large tracts of farmland roll by. Up here, it may still be October but winter has already arrived. Usually there is snow on the ground by Halloween. The farmers are prepared for the season, evidenced by the neatly rolled greenish-yellow bales of hay intermittently dotting the shorn fields.

Animated GIF of an oil well diorama at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray, AB. Click to activate.

We pass a farm with a single working pump jack on it, a tell-tale sign of an active oil or natural gas well. The nutrition student I’m sitting next to, who grew up in Alberta, tells me that you can make a lot of money if you let the oil companies build a rig on your property. We count three more as we pass the property and agree that the owner must be doing very well. The rigs look like ones I’ve seen before in Texas and other parts of the United States, but the oil being extracted here—and the equipment being used—is nothing like what we will see in Fort McMurray this weekend. Oil sands crude, as we learn in back-to-back lectures for two days, is a different creature altogether. It is an energy- and labor-intensive process requiring much larger equipment and very different technologies and resources.

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Hours later, as we near Fort McMurray, the bus slows to a crawl. I look out the window and see a parallel lane being constructed, the source of our delay. Highway 63, the road from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, is a two-lane highway that sees high industrial transportation movement competing with regular traffic. It’s a busy, dangerous road, especially in the winter. Just last month, there was a deadly head-on collision between a work camp shuttle bus and a car on the highway. The increasing expansion of oil sands development in this region is doubling the population of Fort McMurray and putting a heavy strain on the only existing direct passageway to Fort McMurray by car. The Albertan government has committed to expanding the highway by twinning, adding a parallel road, to separate the traffic and prevent accidents like the one above.

Fort McMurray is located in the Athabasca oil sands region, the largest and most developed oil sands extraction site out of the three regions in northern Alberta. Alberta is roughly the size of Texas, and the entire oil sands triangle of the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake regions is about the size of New York State. Fort McMurray has gone through many changes in its life as a town.

The Fort McMurray area was originally populated by the Cree First Nations and was a village before becoming a town in the 1960s. Fort McMurray has transformed from a fur trading post into the oil-boom town it is today. Between 2007 and 2012, the population growth was 11.5%, making it one of the fastest growing areas in Canada, rivaling larger cities like Calgary (12.6%), Edmonton (12.1%) and Vancouver (9.3%). In 1972, 6,847 people lived in Fort McMurray. Forty years later, the population stood at 72,944. These population bursts contribute to the unique culture of Fort McMurray, which I will lay out in subsequent posts.

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We step off the bus at our first stop, the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. Inside the building, there is an educational exhibit explaining the historical and technological development of oil sands extraction processes. It is a good exhibit with easy-to-understand wall text and maquettes explaining the different processes. There are even samples of bitumen at different stages in clear cylindrical containers that you can churn like butter.

The museum is factual, friendly and apolitical in a scientific, exploratory way that feels removed from the current conversations around oil sands development. For example, one video describes how oil sands companies "are paying a lot more attention to aboriginal elders" to learn from their "traditional knowledge" to aid in understanding habitat disturbance from oil sands development. The video then introduces Fred McDonald, a First Nations elder from Fort McKay, who is quoted describing the declining moose and deer population and disappearance of migrating birds. The narrator continues, explaining how observations such as Fred's offer important "insight" into the environmental changes in the area and can "hint" at reasons for these environmental changes. But the video doesn’t equally address the social and cultural implications of these changes, something First Nations in the Athabasca region are currently working to make publicly known and something I will also delve into in future blog posts.


Our first speaker is Gary Haynes, the Section Head of Oil Sands Sustainable Development Secretariat, now a part of Alberta Energy Regulator. The government of Alberta created this position in 2007 to oversee rapid growth issues of the oils sands regions and to address the social, environmental and economic impacts of oil sands development.

We learn from him that Alberta’s oil sands is a much sought-after product by a global market largely due to Canada’s political stability. There are 170 billion barrels of bitumen in established reserves based on data collected three years ago, which represents 12% of the global reserves. The actual reserves, he says, are 10 times that and represent about 10% of what can be extracted. With improvements in technology and the economy and a rising price in oil, Alberta might be able to extract more than 300 billion barrels. In 2013, Americans consumed an average of 18.9 million barrels a day. In other words, based on the conservative estimate of 170 billion barrels, the Canadian oil sands could supply the United States for almost 25 years.

At the moment, the United States is currently the largest importer of oil sands bitumen at 73% of Canadian production. Under the Obama administration, as the United States continues to seek energy dependence from international energy sources, it behooves Canada to diversify into new markets especially as oil sands production is expected to grow from 2 million barrels a day to 4 million in the next 15 to 25 years. This explains the current push to build pipelines such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway to the coastal BC port of Kitimat, the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain Pipeline to the Greater Vancouver area and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline to Eastern Canada.

Next week I will cover talks given by Raymond Powder, member, Councillor and Deputy Chief of the Fort McKay First Nation, Jesse Cardinal of the Keepers of the Athabasca and Shannon Stunden Bower of the Parkland Institute. I want to thank the students and student organizers of the Oil Sands Student Delegation for their thoughtful, well-balanced questions and for letting me tag along on their trip.

Ann Chen, an artist and researcher from New York City. She will focus on mapping the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in Canada through collective storytelling and citizen science. Follow Ann on Twitter @pipelinemapping,@annhchen, Instagram @pipelinemapping, Facebook, or her blog.

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