August 26th, 2007

Fort McMurray Goes Supernova

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Oilsands refinery in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo by Chad Young

VBS.tv, the online documentary arm of Vice Magazine run by Spike Jonze, has a thought-provoking documentary called Toxic Alberta available to view for free (in 15 segments, with some interruptions for ads). The film touches on the extreme environmental impact of tar sands operations; the burning of natural gas to reform bitumen into crude oil is responsible for a staggering 20% of all of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and this is set to rise as there are calls to quintuple output in the next decade.

However, the film also inadvertently exposes the crisis the boom towns face, in terms of managing a 9% population growth rate. Most cities struggle to deal with 2-3% growth; 9% would be crippling. (Imagine adding another 100,000 people to Montreal in a very short time.) Thousands of people — many of them Maritimers looking for work — have flocked to the towns of Fort McMurray and Fort Chipyewan. I’ve heard stories of people getting paid insane amounts of money — even fast food workers make $20 an hour — and thus everyone with some sort of skilled trade has headed west. The documentary bears this out, with one surveyor mentioning a $10k monthly paycheck.

The problem is that planning has lagged far behind. The influx of newcomers and lack of housing has left many in a quasi-homeless situation. On top of that, the enormous salaries have distorted the local economy; a one-bedroom apartment rents for $1800 a month, and a small house can cost upwards of $500,000. Developers are building everything from dormitory-style bunkhouses, to subsidized apartments. One developer, quoted in the film, says that ‘anyone making less than $70,000 here basically needs public assistance.’

When the boom is over — or if there’s a massive switch to renewables and energy efficiency — what will become of these towns?


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One comment

  1. Morton says:

    fascinating.

    April 10th, 2008 at 11:05 pm