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The giant is stepping out

‘Energy independence sounds good, especially considering that half of the world’s petroleum reserves are vulnerable to the whims of…

‘Energy independence sounds good, especially considering that half of the world’s petroleum reserves are vulnerable to the whims of Islamic fundamentalists.”

(Doug Wilson, Wall Street Journal, May 11)

September was splashing its autumn colours around like an artist gone wild as we drove into the Clearwater and Athabasca River valleys.

The beavers in the river valleys were living up to their name but the people of Fort McMurray made them look lazy.

“Newfyville,” is one nickname Fort McMurray has picked up. Confirmation came quickly touring the town — a licence plate on a car in front of us read: “NEWFIE!”

A smile is the best welcome anywhere. We entered Fort McMurray smiling, thanks to the driver of the classy white Mustang.

“Seventeen,” said Bob. “That’s the percentage of Newfoundlanders here, they claim. Mind you that was yesterday. The numbers here change daily I’ll swear, and they’re about as reliable as political promises.

“Exaggeration is so common we ignore most of it,” he continued.

“Last year an environmental spokesperson accused us of digging up the entire province. We aren’t, and we won’t! Just proves what Dad says: Boom towns grow at 100 miles per hour, bureaucracy responds at 10 miles per hour.”

In June, Statistics Canada reported the average Albertan works more hours per week than workers in other provinces.

Oil sands miners are close to the top. They begin most shifts with a new road map showing changed roads, traffic lights, and loading locations despite that Suncor crews, on one July day, moved more than 1 million tonnes of material over a road network, which changes more often than we change clothes. These men and women earn every nickel they get, and then some.

Outside “the pits,” we’re told, as many as 1,000 buses hit the streets of Fort McMurray moving people on shift changes for: Albian Sands Energy, Canadian Natural Resources, Conoco Phillips Canada, Connacher Oil & Gas, Deer Creek Energy, Devon Canada, EnCana, Husky Energy, Imperial Oil w/ Exxon Mobil Canada, OPTI Canada/Nexen, Petrobank, Petro-Can/Japan Canada Oil Sands, LP/UTS Energy, NEG Energy w/China National Offshore Oil, SynEnCo Energy, Shell Canada, Suncor and Syncrude — to name, alphabetically, some of the many players in this oil sands game.

These buses also wend their way through dozens of other crews working as hard as the oil mining crews but building a city.

Add to this eclectic mix the people tasked with providing every service people need and it’s obvious why it’s more than “a city that never sleeps;” it’s the boom city among Canadian boom cities.

It’s go, go, go; it’s get, stop, work, plow, shovel, dig, load; Eat! Where, where, where do I live? Sleep! It’s drive, school, hello, so long,! Sing! It’s jets roaring, water pouring, traps springing, moose bellowing. Harvest!

It’s fix, paint, cook, patch, it’s home, children laughing, flowers growing, lawns being trimmed and it’s quiet subdivisions! Shop!

It’s dark, it’s dusk, it’s work, it’s dawn, it’s day, it’s night! Dancing! It’s saws cutting, hammers banging, trucks roaring and cat’s purring! Hiking! Camping! Fishing!

It’s half-finished, finished and in between houses and apartments and schools, and stores, and moving in, moving out, cement drying, see ya later! Patience!

Flashing lights, sirens, dogs howling, brakes screeching, it’s endless, it’s Fort McMurray, it’s a people place, a family place.

Ask, and they say, it’s a good place to be.

The result — there’s some truth in this flippant exaggeration: “If you’re coming to Fort McMurray, bring your own home, your own school, your own hospital and you’ll be just fine!”

A place to live is as rare as hen’s tooth, harder to find, and you could buy a chicken ranch with your monthly room rent.

Listening to these men and women it’s any-town talk, any-town problems multiplied 10- or 20-fold. Throughout the talk, pride in their place shines through.

They seem to be saying to their government, in effect: if we can move a million tonnes in a day why can’t you equal that kind of production in your field of expertise, be it government, support or service industry?

Quit talking about doing it, get with it and get it done!

The light dawns. You’re talking to pioneers, as high tech as they are, they’re still breaking new trail. They know more about oil mining than anyone else in the world. They’re Canada’s new generation of trail blazers.

A National Energy Board paper in the Oil Sands Discovery Centre tells us about some of them who broke trail. The industry veterans are lauded in other histories, and we meet people worth knowing and worth remembering.

Today, Canada and Canadians are reaping the benefits of more than a century of research and development, and the resulting four decades of commercial production, which finally came into its own only a decade ago.

“The early history of the oil sands,” the National Energy Board storyteller writes,  “is replete with accounts of individuals of courage and conviction who persevered, often in the face of incredible hardship and disappointment, to pursue their vision for oil sands development. Among these, two men stood out — Sidney Ells and Karl Clark.”

The following statement was made in 1950 by Max Ball, a long time friend and associate of Ells: “S.C. Ells may well be called the father of the Alberta bituminous sand research and development. He made the first systematic study of the deposits and the first — and as yet only — comprehensive maps of the area in which they lie.

“He made the first systematic study of methods for separating the bitumen from the sands. He first developed and demonstrated the principle of hot water separation through pulping the bituminous sands and recovering the separated bitumen in a flotation cell.

“For 35 years, in the face of indifference and skepticism, he has been the courageous and unremitting advocate of the value of the bituminous sand deposits.

“Under the leadership of J. Howard Pew, Sun Oil Company did extensive investigation of their oil sands leases, beginning in the early 1950s, and undertook to build the first surface mining and upgrading plant.

“The Great Canadian Oil Sands, now Suncor, operation began in 1967. The lessons learned from its construction and from solving early operational problems paved the way for the modern oil sands industry.”

The modern oil sands industry, despite the burgeoning band of critics, is a Canadian success story.

Suncor’s pioneer work force produced 30,000 barrels of oil per day for the 1967 market. A far cry from today when their crews produce around 340,000 barrels every 12 hours.

Similarly Suncor’s last November announcement that it will spend $5.3 billion in 2007 for operations, keeps the legend of giants alive and well.

The giant is stepping out. Its footprint has been found next door.

Excitement is apparently the current coin in Saskatchewan, and it’s growing. The government is issuing oil sands exploration permits by the bushel.

Saskatchewan First Nations communities in the region of the giant’s footprint, and the nearest city — the one with the dual Alberta, and a Saskatchewan personality — Lloydminster, may soon be partnering in the oil sands business.

As another visiting media pundit observed: “The Athabasca Oil Sands are now featured prominently in international trade talks, with energy rivals China and the United States both negotiating with Canada for a bigger share of the oils sands rapidly increasing production.”

Who knows, in time Lloydminster may share in Fort McMurray’s prestigious listing as a city of significant geopolitical importance.

A city of geopolitical importance! Not bad for a bunch of western oil men and women and their families in a small Canadian city, “northwest of nowhere, with more moose than people roaming the land,” as a big city media representative from south of the border dubbed it last year.

Maybe we, and our American neighbours, should ask ourselves where we’d be without them, or the pioneers who led the way?