How isolated are houses in Edmonton Alberta

A country is built on sand

You only have to walk down the main street for a moment to see what Fort McMurray is all about: you pass the Boomtown Casino, shops and a club called Cowboys, which proudly advertises the Night of the Wild Schoolgirls. Then the police station of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the city administration buildings, the "Oil Sands Hotel" and the "Diggers Bar", which has "exotic dancers" on offer. Countless SUVs rush by - one more pimped up than the other, many covered with dried mud, almost all of them with all-wheel drive. They can be used to race over the impassable terrain that can be seen from the main road. And when the wind blows from the northwest, you can smell the oil: a heavy, sour smell, unmistakable. Around here they call it the scent of money.

As the situation in the Middle East becomes more and more uncertain and Iraq sinks into chaos, places are becoming centers of oil production that one would not have expected. Fort McMurray, a five-hour drive north of Edmonton, Alberta, has always been a place of pioneers. Even before the first white fur hunters came, the indigenous people knew that there was oil here; they used it to waterproof their canoes. The problem: It is not normal crude oil, but tar sands, also known as oil sands, a mixture of sand, water and heavy crude oil. This makes extraction complicated and expensive: it costs approximately 26 Canadian dollars (US $ 27) to produce per barrel (158.98 liters). When this sum was still roughly equivalent to the price of oil, the type of production naturally made no sense. But now that the price is around a hundred dollars a barrel, things are very different. For years only two companies worked the Athabasca oil sands fields, which extend over 141,000 square kilometers. Today there are seven companies based, Shell alone plans to produce 500,000 barrels a day at some point. All companies taken together currently have a total of 1.2 million barrels a day. It should be 3.5 million as soon as all systems are up and running (four of the seven companies are still preparing). The companies plan to invest $ 100 billion in the area over the next 15 years.

(Read on the next page: Median Age: 31. Median Income: $ 135,000)

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If oil prices stay as high as they are now or even rise, there will be profits of tens of billions annually. Much of this money will come from the US, where they are happy to have access to "safe" oil in the immediate vicinity. Technically, the companies are currently only able to develop around ten percent of the reserves, but even with this quota, the oil sands of Athabasca are the second largest proven oil reservoir in the world. If you add the so far undeveloped ninety percent, then Alberta's oil reserves are at least six times as large as those of Saudi Arabia. Canada already produces as much oil as Kuwait does. Soon it will be twice as much. Canada is already the largest supplier of crude oil to the United States.

If you ask people why they are at Fort McMurray, the answer is almost
always the same: a thumb and forefinger rubbing together, a meaningful look. Or, in the case of the spirited 11-year-old Ron Mfoafo-M'Carthy, who is visiting his father, an engineer from Ghana, with his sister and mother: "The cash register is ringing!" Because of the rapid development there is a shortage of skilled workers here , so the companies pay salaries that are far above the usual tariffs. An engineer like Johnny Mfoafo-M’Carthy can earn up to 220,000 Canadian dollars (around 150,000 euros) a year here, in Toronto it would be less than half as much in a corresponding position.

No wonder that people from all over the world arrive every day. Fort McMurray residents come from more than 70 nations, median age 31, median income per family $ 135,000 (the highest in Canada, with a national average of $ 67,000). There are Fijians, Mauritanians, Venezuelans, even refugees from the border region between Somalia and Ethiopia. They all put up with a lot: in winter, temperatures drop to minus forty degrees for weeks, plus a gruesome wind. But it's worth it - just as the American dream emerged from the California gold rush, a new Canadian dream is being defined in Fort McMurray. Go west. Fort McMurray can change your life. But you should consider what price you want to pay.

(Read on the next page: "Trucks with tires the size of one-story houses. They could crush an ordinary delivery truck without the driver noticing.")

Aside from the smell, you don't really get a taste of the oil sands if you don't drive 45 minutes down Highway 63 and, say, check out the Syncrude grounds. Even knowing that this is the world's largest producer of synthetic crude oil, it takes a while to understand the full scope of the projects here. The dismantling works like this: First trees and bushes are felled, then the boggy peat is removed. The last thing that remains is the black, syrupy oil sand, which is removed by trucks with tires the size of one-story houses. When fully loaded, they weigh as much as a Boeing 747, and they could crush an ordinary delivery van without the driver noticing.

This type of open pit mining is arduous work. A heavy transporter can make up to 63 journeys a day; then it rocks again and again past twenty meter high mountains of yellow sulfur - a by-product of the purification of the oil extracted from the sand. In winter, the haze is often so thick that bulldozer drivers feel their way across the terrain centimeter by centimeter so as not to slip into one of the huge tar holes. In summer it is again so dusty that the area has to be constantly sprinkled with water. The workers have three coffee breaks of twenty minutes each per twelve-hour shift; there is also a journey from Fort Mc Murray, which in the case of Shells Albian Sands takes an hour and a half.

Because heat is required to extract the oil, large amounts of gas are burned - one barrel of gas to produce two barrels of crude oil. According to some estimates, the Fort McMurray and Athabasca oil sands fields will soon be Kana-the largest contributor to global warming. According to David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, temperatures in this area have risen by two degrees in the past forty years.

The open pit mining in the oil sands changes the surface of the earth. The black areas can already be seen from space. In ten years, Schindler estimates, "they will look like one huge gaping pit," the size of Florida. The acid rain kills trees. The oil companies say they are doing renaturation - grass for bison and 4.5 million trees planted by Syncrude. But the marshland is irreplaceable: In the thousand year old peat landscape, for example, live the endangered caribou.

(Read on the next page: "Mayor Melissa Blake is not to be envied for her job.")

To extract one barrel of oil you need two barrels of water. The amount of water that is normally used to supply a million-dollar city is pumped out of the Athabasca River every day. Since the water cannot be returned to the rivers despite being reprocessed, it is collected in artificial lakes. They're full of carcinogenic hydrocarbons and toxic metals, mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Still, the oil companies get everything they want from politics. The free market and oil incomes outweigh all other factors. In the provincial government, the representatives of the environmental associations and the indigenous people are regularly outvoted.

Mayor Melissa Blake is not to be envied for her job. This also applies to other areas: the doubling of the population in the last ten years is overloading the city; Fort McMurray's population has skyrocketed from around 32,000 to around 65,000, and growth of another 40,000 is predicted over the next five years. The mayoress lacks funds; she wants to get the oil companies to slow down the expansion of the production facilities so that the community's infrastructure can cope. A new sewage treatment plant will be completed in 2009 - and will probably be overloaded again a year later. A school, which took three years to build, was already too small a year before the inauguration. Medical care is only sparingly maintained. Also difficult: the subject of real estate. In the past two years, prices have risen by forty to fifty percent. A modest three bedroom bungalow now costs $ 600,000.

Before Inderjit Kaur came to Fort McMurray in search of a better future for her three children, she taught computer and English classes in Mohali, Punjab. In the beginning, the 40-year-old looked after her sister's children for a low wage. She now has two jobs, still as a nanny and as a telephone operator in the leisure center. She works from half past seven in the morning to half past ten in the evening and has hardly any days off. After taxes, she has $ 2,000 a month. A two-bedroom apartment would cost $ 2,500 a month, so she couldn't bring her family with her. She hoped it would be a year before they could come. She has not seen the children for four years.

There are many such fates at Fort McMurray. Trina Rolsdon, for example. She is sitting in a central place and smoking a cigarette. The 44-year-old lived with her boyfriend and son, worked as a waitress - until she had arthritis
forced her to quit her job. A year ago she became homeless. The woman comes from a tiny town in southern Alberta and is one of those who
Tonia Enger, chief of police at Fort McMurray, would ask, “Why are you still here? Shouldn't you rather go back to your hometown? ”Rolsdon hates the place now, too, but she wants to hold out until her 16-year-old son has graduated from high school. Then she will see to it that she gets away.

(Read on the next page: "He and Evers give the camp they live in" five anti-stars. ")

For many workers, the work camps, the makeshift settlements, are the best
Solution - and for some of the workers who build the conveyors, they are even the only option. These camps are real small towns. 7500 people live at Suncor’s Borealis Camp, the largest such facility in North America. However, it lacks all the amenities that a small town normally has to offer. The long, low caravans are surrounded by barbed wire and wedged between roaring towers and pipes on the one hand and a country road and huge sand hills on the other. In the caravan: men in dressing gowns. The rooms are six square meters large cells, furnished with a small bed. A taxi driver from Somalia who lives in one of the camps says that everyone here gets a cough. "And the faces look like rubber after a while."

At the weekend, the residents of the camps look for a long distance. Either they leave the city behind and drive five hours on Highway 63 to Edmonton (the highway has no fast lane, is so busy and so full of razors in the evening that it is also known as the "Road of Death"). Or they just go to Fort McMurray. The French-Canadian construction workers Guy Chiasson, 39, Marty Leblanc, 31, and Alain Evers, 44, from New Brunswick enjoy an afternoon beer in the bar, which is part of “Moxie's Classic Grill”. Chiasson, a chatty guy, has just done twelve-hour shifts for 24 days, most of which he spent ten meters up building a coking plant, a giant vessel that breaks down bitumen to convert it into crude oil initiate. He and Evers give the camp in which they live "five anti-stars." The walls are as thin as paper. The people on the late shift wake up those on the morning shift and vice versa. Leblanc says: “I've never been to a prison, but that's roughly how I imagine it to be there. The rooms, the food counter, the queuing. "

What does Leblanc spend its money on? "For my jeep!" He replies with childish enthusiasm. Evers, who is in Fort McMurray without his wife and 23-year-old daughter, was a fishmonger in a village until fish became scarce. Chiasson, a nurse, paramedic and carpenter, divorced three and a half years ago, lost his house to his wife and is now trying to get back on his feet. He wants to build his own house. Then the pension. At his current pace, earning $ 8,000 in 24 days, he estimates that means "work, shower, go to sleep, work, shower, go to sleep" for another ten years.

(Read on the next page: "None of them has any illusions about the sacrifices they have to make here.")

None of them have any illusions about the sacrifices they have to make here. "You earn well," says Leblanc, "but it's hard." He is younger than the others and, according to his own estimates, still has 15 to 20 years ahead of him. "Which doesn't necessarily mean we'll see it," says Chiasson. There are many stories around of men who worked overtime for years and then died six months after they retired. "Well," mumbles Chiasson, "everything will pass."

"That can be quite intimidating for newcomers here," says Angela Adams, who works in the union's complaints office. "It's not always easy when you're looking for help." It's really tough when you come from a South Sea island or from Bosnia, for example, and don't speak English. "Lots of people here have depression."

And in the settlements further outside the city there are still whole
other worries. Canada has an immigration program for "temporary work stays," which means that you can work for two years but then have to return to your home country. It is said that the oil companies are flying in en masse Filipinos, Chinese and Mexicans in chartered Boeings, which land directly on the company's runways. The workers hardly leave the site, and after two years they are shipped back home.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labor, a provincial union federation, recently received a complaint from a group of Romanians who on paper made $ 24 an hour for a sixty-hour week, but actually only $ 200 every two
Weeks paid off. "We use these people, who come from third world countries, like disposable goods," he says. “That contradicts all Canadian values. That's not the way we should build our economy and our country. "

(Read on the next page: "After long shifts, many easily spend $ 800 in an evening; some gamble away $ 30,000. Alcohol and gambling are the least of that.")

And finally, there is another problem that very few expect: too much money. For people used to living humble lives, an income explosion can be a dubious blessing. After long shifts, many easily spend $ 800 in an evening; some gamble away $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 in one fell swoop in the Boomtown Casino. Alcohol and gambling are the least of these.

For example, for 56-year-old Dave Beaton: After raising his children alone in Vancouver, he moved to Fort McMurray, got a good job as an equipment mechanic - and let himself be tempted to do hard drugs for the first time in his life to take. Today he is homeless. Beaton says a drug dealer can make hundreds of dollars on a five-minute walk down Franklin Street. But he's trying to get off the drugs because "my children resent me." A sniff, he bows his head.

Most of the men live in Fort McMurray. Workers. There are tons of stories about women who unexpectedly arrive for their husbands birthday only to find out that marriage has stopped working. "Family life suffers a lot here," said Dave Drummond, president of the communications union. In “Lion’s Den”, a dingy pub full of tired men who drink Labatt Blue Beer, 21-year-old Kim Pabrelko says that women here have to fight back all the time. She is quite understanding: "Eighty percent have their families elsewhere."

Rise and fall at the same time: the small town of Fort McMurray is developing at breakneck speed into a big city, an economic center. In the 1950s there was just one main street and a promenade in this city, seven years ago the residents of Fort McMurray knew most of the people they met on the street, at least by sight. Today everyone seems to be a stranger.

The departure lounge at Fort McMurray Airport is full of passengers with ill-fitting jeans and stale alcohol. Beer bellies, tired eyes. The few women - one with high heels and a tight dress, another with three children - have just said goodbye to their husbands again. A gnarled Canadian from the French-speaking part of the country mumbles "Je t’aime" into his cell phone. The ground crew smiles at the young man who has just come back from the late shift and has to be woken up for his flight. And when the plane finally takes off, the visitor has the feeling that the whole city is on the way home.