Two direct flights leave Vancouver for Fort McMurray every day, and I’m on one of them. Back in Creston, my stalwart former comrades are finishing up the last few days of the summer planting season. I’ve been offered a spot on a reclamation crew working in the tar sands for a few weeks, and hungry for more of the money that can be made during the summer labour season, I’ve left planting a little early and signed on to the oil patch. This won’t be the first time I’ve worked in the Fort Mac area, starting in 1999 I worked for three summers planting trees from remote camps run by Coast Range. This will be the first time I’ve worked directly in the oil industry, either in the Fort McMurray oil patch or anywhere else (unless you count pumping gas at the Squamish Chevron for 2 months).
YVR radar and outbuilding.
Working for questionable industries is a re-occuring theme in my life. Despite self-identifying as an ecologist and enviromentalist, I’ve been involved with 2 different oil multinationals, the U.S. military and countless logging companies, either working for contractors hired by those dubious entities, or working on grant money from them, or working on their property, or all of the above. This will be the closest I’ve come to directly supporting the damaging operations of an industry I dislike — usually I’ve been taking grant money to do environmental projects on their behalf, and at least with treeplanting I could take some solace that I was planting trees rather than cutting them. This time I will be preventing erosion on the dam walls of the mining tailing ponds of what I assume is the single largest source of carbon-altering emissions in the world. I guess I can still claim that I’m preventing run-off instead of directly extracting oil, but I think the excuses are getting a little thin here. I will be directly labouring on the infrastructure of the Alberta tar sands.
I’m doing it for the money. Since I graduated I’ve been freelancing, doing what I have decided to call “community and ecosystem informatics”, which has mostly meant web development and a little cartography for socially and environmentally oriented clients. I like the freelance life, I like tracking down jobs and taking on unexpected tasks for interesting people and I’m optimistic about the direction that work is going. But summer manual labour has the benefit of being consistent and, in some cases, well paid. A friend of mine who I know from the treeplanting community emailed me to ask if was interested in joining this erosion control crew, and somehow I overcame my ethical objections in the amount of time it took me to operate my calculator and my calendar. So here I am with the rockies floating by below me, bound for Fort McMurray.
Western Albertan oil leases under the wing.
I have to admit, I’m also curious to see Fort Mac again. Not that we’ll be seeing much of town, I’ll be living an hour north in one of the satellite industrial lodges which I’m told collectively house as many as 10 000 men and a dozen women. Fort McMurray has always had something of a trainwreck fascination for me. I’m curious for a glimpse of the changes in 8 years of oil industry acceleration, and curious what it’s like to live in an industrial lodge. It will be a switch from my be-porched and be-gardened small-town lifestyle in Creston, that’s for sure. I won’t even get to cook for myself. What am I going to do in the evening?
Highway 63 north towards the tar sands.
I’m told it’s a good company to work for, and they’re making it too easy for me, paying my flight and rental car and all accomodation and expeneses. This is considered normal in the oil industry, and it’s much different than the co-op culture of treeplanting, where most people pay daily camp-costs for the privilege of pitching a tent. Whatever it’s like, it will come and go quickly enough, I’m told there will be between 15 and 25 days of work. And then I’ll be back on the coast, and can enjoy some summer and get back into the freelancing lifestyle.