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The land of behemoths

It is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful. (Nietzche, 1844-1900)Brobdingnagian…Prime Minister Stephen Harper laid the…

It is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful. (Nietzche, 1844-1900)


Prime Minister Stephen Harper laid the Brobdingnagian label on the oil sands recently while bragging about them.

 “Digging the bitumen out of the ground, squeezing out the oil and converting it into synthetic crude is a monumental challenge, he said. “It requires vast amounts of capital, Brobdingnagian technology, and an army of skilled workers.”

Brobdingnagian, indeed, printing the word is as far as we’ll go.

‘Brobdingnag,’ was a country of giants in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Fort McMurray rests midst a region of giants, hence it describes these oil sands, the projects and the skill of its people admirably.

However, the word is not destined to come into common use.

Fort McMurray’s future is written in oil, is sustained by oil and ensured by oil.

If Scripps Howard News Services’ Michael Fumanto’s numbers are accurate, it will be a long and prosperous future.

“By one estimate,” he wrote last year, “we may only have about 500 years of energy left from oil sands at current usage rates. Just five centuries till the spigot runs dry. Where are the doomsayers when you need them?”

Fort McMurray’s population has increased nine per cent per year in the last six years. Now it is more than 73,000.

It boasted 36,452 people in 1999.

New projects and increasing production to meet demand suggest the population will double again before today’s kindergarten children enter university.

These 73,000 people keep this city, and their Wood Buffalo region’s 10 other towns and villages, pulsing with verve, energy and vitality — theirs!

They’re the Canadians who produce 39 per cent of Canada’s oil by putting one of every eight gallons of gasoline in your gas tank. They are the world premier experts in oil mining, bar none.

Come meet a city full of hard-working people on a high about their town, the size of their projects, their machines, their pay and benefit packages and its challenges.

“Our son earned $1,500 today,” I overheard one mother tell her husband, handing him the phone.

“He double-timed on Thanksgiving Day. Old friends in the mining game are there too, so I’m happy and so are they.”

As an afterthought she tells her husband, “ask him about bonuses. I missed some of it.”

Hanging up the phone, the husband responded: “You’re right about the bonuses. Companies and the unions are negotiating ‘retention bonuses.’ It’s a plus for hanging in there. Work for the company for an agreed term, say four or five years, and you’ll get a bonus over and above your salary. It’s not peanuts either — $50,000 is one number being bandied about between one company and their union — paid over the period in installments, I think.

“The need for these bonuses tells you this is skookum hard work; non-stop production, 12-hour shifts, monster machines, big responsibilities, sounds like many can’t cut it, and who knows — maybe companies raid others for highly skilled people eh?

 “I just read the federal government gets more tax revenue from the sands than the Alberta government. Fascinating, just fascinating! I’d move here in a minute if I could, eh old girl?”

He added a final shot spontaneously: “Get used to it, eastern Canada — economic power is moving west. Your power brokers are even noticing common everyday westerners they’ve ignored like left over chicken for so long. Lord t’underin’, I’m enjoying every minute of it!”

The wife, like most women, grasped the heart of the place and the people. The husband was mesmerized by the mechanics of it, especially the “tools.”

Trucks bigger than his house, electric shovels bigger than the hotel in his hometown, a high-tech world where any man with a technical bent could live happily forever.

He had to tell someone, so friend John received an enthusiastic phone call.

 “Hey John, Bob said this is the first truck he’s driven where he has to climb a ladder to check the oil. Your big four-by-four looks like a dinky toy in comparison.”

“It’s a Caterpillar 797B haul truck with a $5-million price tag (some of the 2007 models are now at $7.5 million) and, like many Christmas presents they’re delivered with ‘some assembly required.’

“Delivery means a dozen semi-trailer rigs from Decatur, Illinois to McMurray.

 “One semi brings a 24-cylinder, turbo engine with 3,550 horsepower; another brings the cab, and so on. Assembled a 797 is 15 metres long, 7.5 metres high, and weighs 624,000 kilograms. In the measure we know, that’s 48-feet long, 25-feet high. 1,375,000-pounds empty.

“Loaded with 400 tons of bitumen it’s heavier than a fully loaded Boeing 747. Those 400 tons weigh as much as 250 Ford Excursions and produces three tons of oil, or 200 barrels, worth about $10,000.

“I read somewhere it only takes a few weeks of these payloads and the rig is paid for, but I forget how many weeks it is.

“They’re as easy to drive as your car, Bob said. Top speed 68 kilometres per hour (42 mph), but, unless you’re Bill Gates, you’d not want to pay the bill at the pumps.

 It takes “6,800 litres (1,800 US gallons) to fill the tank, burning it at 246 litres, (65 gallons) an hour, averaging 0.3 miles per gallon. An oil change 454 litres (120 gallons), and 1,192 litres (315 gallons) of coolant to fill the rad.”

 “One wheel weighs as much as two African elephants, (15,422 kilograms), and they’re as high as an elephant — four metres (13 feet) in diameter, and over four feet wide, and each tire costs $50,000.”

The husband’s enthusiasm was beginning to wane.

“There’s eight computers and global positioning on each one, and I haven’t talked about the gigantic shovels that can grab 100 tons per scoop, the larger-than-life Cats and graders, and, well, check them out; they’re all on the ‘net, and there’s nothing ordinary about them.”

 “Nope, they don’t sound too ordinary,” said John, happy to cut loose, “I’ll go on the ‘net.”

Ordinary is pretty hard to find in oil sands country. Except the people — they’re ordinary folk living a boom and meeting the challenges a boom throws at them.

To get the job done they step up and do extraordinary things.

Just last week, Suncor’s crews, with 83-797s and Komatsu 320s, moved 520,000 tones of material; 270,000 tons of that was money-making bitumen.

There is indeed nothing ordinary about that kind of production, and all the big companies are doing the same. 

It’s not only a land of giants, it’s a land that spawns myths.

The mother is right: it is good money. But the mythmakers tell us it’s easy money.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion, before his crowning, raised the ire of many Westerners at a political rally in Edmonton last January by perpetuating that myth.

He called oil sands’ earnings “easy money.”

He’s not being singled out, he’s merely an example of people in high places perpetuating the myths.

“Seeking equilibrium in such a boom is like trying to drink coffee while jumping on a trampoline. Myths, and misstatements perpetuated by people in high places simply spill more of the coffee and the people are left to clean it up,” said Bob as he drove us around the place.

A glimpse into the numbers game a new company must pay to play in the region comes from a Canadian National Resources Ltd. brochure.

The company began construction in 2005 and it expects to be shipping oil by 2011.

Its capital investment — $10.8 billion. Its reserves — 16 billion barrels, with a timeline of more than 50 years to recover investments.

Various levels of government standing in line can expect to get $24 billion, or more, over the life of the project.

There are 6,500 workers who have, among other frills, their own Tim Hortons.

Restaurant staff are said to earn $26 an hour dishing out their donuts and java.

Stopping to smell the coffee and gazing ahead we find $1 of every $4 is being invested by oil sands companies to better environmental performance.

Other independent companies have joined the search for better production techniques.

For example, Los Vegas-based Rival Technologies Incorporated announced in January:  “A breakthrough has been made in oil-sands technology. Rival now owns an extremely valuable formula that represents a breakthrough for upgrading oil sands bitumen and heavy oil.”

Others are reconsidering the statement of Edward Teller.

Teller, known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, suggested, in 1960, “It might be possible to extract more petroleum from deposits that are regarded as depleted by exploding nuclear devices … shattering the oil sands and perhaps providing the heat so that the oil may flow more freely.”

Confucius was right: “Change is the one constant in the world.”

And it definitely applies in the Valleys of the Sands.