After the Gold Rush?


The newest outpost of the global petroleum race is not far from the middle of nowhere. Two hours north of Edmonton the ranches and farms suddenly surrender to the vastness of Canada’s boreal forest as snow-frocked trees close in on the two-lane highway. In the depth of winter, the sun offers no more than a thin, brassy light to illuminate the tight-packed stands of fir and poplar. The bush stretches away in all directions.

photo of a building, words in neonCourtesy Sacred Land Film Project

Yet Alberta’s Highway 63 is as busy as any stretch of Southern California blacktop. Semis with essential provisions rumble north, followed by packs of pickups carrying roughnecks and roustabouts. Giant flatbeds piled with steel frames and aluminum pipes take up more than half the road. The occasional overturned vehicle in a ditch offers grim proof of the deadly combination of speeding drivers, heavy loads, and sketchy road conditions. The locals call this stretch the “Highway to Hell.”

A few hours after the last homestead, the trees give way and the wilderness opens abruptly to reveal Ft. McMurray, home to some 80,000 souls scrambling to get their piece of the billions of dollars of oil wealth locked in the sands surrounding the Athabasca River.

Ft. McMurray has all the makings of a rough frontier town, and muckraking journalists have had good fun exploring its lurid underside. Stories about the crack habits of mine workers, gold-digging waitresses, and American sex workers make for good copy. And nobody who lives in Ft. McMurray would disagree that too many men with too much money and too little to do makes for a volatile mix.

But the horror stories miss the mark. On close inspection, Ft. Mac (as the locals all say) seems pretty “normal” – and that might be even scarier.

“It definitely is a party town – any day of the week there are people in the bars,” Darcey Haustein, a 20-year-old electrician who works at Suncor, told me. “But it’s awesome. It still has that city atmosphere, but you can go dirt biking, skidooing. The city has well-groomed walking trails all over.”

Driving around town, I saw what she meant. The neighborhoods could be mistaken for suburban Minneapolis: winding roads with two-story, two-car garages and basketball hoops. At the snazzy Eagle Ridge Condominiums, every patio seemed to have a gas BBQ and a table and chairs set. It didn’t seem like such a bad place to live.

With its sprawl and its strip malls, Ft. Mac could be almost anywhere, another place built by and for the petrol-auto-industrial complex. As a waitress at a downtown steakhouse told me, “I expected this to be hell. But it’s not that bad. It’s just like anywhere else.” The way she shrugged made it unclear if it was a compliment to Ft. Mac – or an indictment of everywhere else.

The only hint that something’s awry is the inflation – meals cost nearly as much as in New York City, and homes are at San Francisco prices – the natural consequence of a place where a parts manager makes $80,000 a year. Oh, and also the occasional whiff of odd smells. Sometimes like fresh tar on a roof, sometimes the sickly-sweet scent of sulfur – a reminder that this “Pleasantville” is just down the road from one of the largest industrial complexes on the planet.

Ft. Mac’s gold rush spirit can be seen in its get-rich-and-get-out mentality. Most people are on some kind of five-year plan: Make a bunch of money and then head back to Ontario or Newfoundland. “We’re going to rape and pillage the earth until there’s nothing left,” an oil services worker from Montreal told me. “That’s how it goes.”

No one, it appears, has put much thought into the long-term. Syncrude, the biggest mining operation in town, expects that improvements to its upgrader will give the plant another 50 years of operation. What happens after that?

It’s a basic principle of thermodynamics: After every boom there comes a bust. Someday Ft. Mac will be abandoned. It will be just another ghost town, wasted, wrung out, and empty.

—Jason Mark

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