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Undercover at the Tar Sands

A first-hand report from an anonymous worker on Canada's controversial oil pipelines

Heavy equipment operators at an oil sands mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
Jerry Cleveland / The Denver Post
April 26, 2013 4:25 PM ET

Editor's Note: In recent months, many climate activists have focused their efforts on Canada's tar sands and the companies set on extracting fossil fuels from them. With the debate raging louder than ever, Rolling Stone is in contact with one of the workers helping to build a pipeline to bring oil from the tar sands to the U.S. Read on for that anonymous correspondent's first dispatch from one of the world's most controversial jobs.

There's something in the air in Fort McMurray, Alberta – and it's not just fumes from the massive oil sands processing plants north of town. Spend enough time here, and you'll pick up the pungent scents of machismo and money.

This is the heart of Canada's controversial tar sands operation. If all goes as planned, this region will soon be sending its bitumen – the sticky, black petroleum byproduct colloquially known as "tar" – down the Keystone XL Pipeline. President Obama has yet to give the contentious project the green light, but work in the oil sands shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.

The region has 80,000 permanent residents, and hosts about 40,000 temporary workers at any given time – welders, pipefitters, heavy equipment operators, technicians, engineers and other hired hands who pass through Fort McMurray as the work ebbs and flows. I joined them this winter when, after hearing stories about Fort Mac for years, I signed on to help build a massive pipeline (not the Keystone XL). I was eager to see the tar sands for myself, experience life in Fort Mac firsthand – and, let's be honest, I wanted to make some oil money, too.  I'm writing this story anonymously to protect my friends, my colleagues and myself.

The Fossil Fuel Resistance

Much of the work here relies on ice roads and freezing temperatures, so when spring comes, the work ends. The obvious irony is that the carbon economy itself is very likely contributing to the early springs, late winters and wacky weather that keeps interrupting our work.

Few in northern Alberta seemed to notice when thousands gathered in Washington, D.C. to protest the Keystone project in February. Instead, everyone was talking about the southern extension project coming up later this year, and the 14,000 jobs it would bring.

The recent rupture of an Exxon pipeline in Arkansas, spilling tens of thousands of Canadian crude, made some noise here. But most chalked it up to "bad timing" –folks are quick to point out that the pipeline in question was installed in the 1940s, and my foreman assured us that Exxon would "make sure everyone is taken care of." The prevailing logic seems to be that if you throw enough money at a problem, it'll go away. 

People come from all over Canada to cash-in at "Fort McMoney." Entry-level laborers can make $400 or $500 a day after wages and the generous union-sanctioned living allowance. Even so, employers are constantly struggling to fill positions. There is simply too much work, and not enough people to do it.

Everyone here seems to have money – even the local McDonald's pays $14 an hour to start – but few people act like it. Eighty-six percent of Fort McMurray households reported incomes over $100,000 last year, and a whopping 25 percent of households brought in more than $250,000. Still, you don't see a lot of luxury cars or designer clothing up here. Instead, the local status symbol involves a massive 4x4 truck and lots of toys in the garage.

Despite all the money in town – or maybe because of it – Fort McMurray has plenty of problems. Figures from 2007 show the city had 215 percent more drug offences, 117 percent more impaired drivers, and 89 percent more assaults than the provincial average. I've seen enough during my short time here to know that booze, blow and bar fights remain common. It's easy to spot the company trucks as they sit in parking lots outside bars for hours every night; I wasn't on the job for a full week before my first coworker was fired for alleged DWI.

Most people go out to bullshit, drink beer and watch hockey – but the combination of alcohol and amped-up testosterone can be toxic. Some of the younger guys (and, yes, a few of the older ones, too) like to fight, so bumping into the wrong person or looking at someone the wrong way can be all it takes to send fists flying.

Cocaine isn't hard to find – all you have to do is walk into a bar and ask, "Where I can get some coke?" and someone will likely have the answer. There's no need to whisper in this town; you might as well be asking "Where's the rest room?" or "Who's playing tonight?"

You don't even need to go inside to get your fix. Drugs are readily available on the sidewalk at one rather notorious convenience store, and dealers sit in their vehicles outside grocery stores and tire shops in the middle of the afternoon.

Most oil sands jobs require pre-employment drug testing, so detox kits are readily available for those who need to, you know, study for the test. But every oil company has a different policy: Some let you use previous test results if you're coming directly from another job, while others are more diligent, and insist new hires take a fresh one. You're essentially good to go (and free to do whatever you want in the little time you have off) after your initial test, unless your employer requires re-tests every so often. I myself never did take a drug test, but I was one of the few who managed to slip through the cracks.

One of the big oil companies, Suncor Energy, tried to introduce random drug testing last year, but the labor union stepped in, saying random tests violate workers' rights. The judge agreed, but Suncor maintains random tests would increase workplace safety, and notes that three of its seven worksite fatalities since 2000 involved drugs or alcohol.

If you get into an accident on the job – whether you cut your finger or back your truck into something – you have to take another drug test. (The unions don't contest this one.) As a result, a lot of accidents go unreported, since many workers would rather suck up their injuries than risk flunking the pee test and losing their job. The slip-ups that do get reported are written up and become fodder for the next day's pre-shift meeting.

Each workday begins at 6:45 a.m. with the daily safety meeting. The foreman opens with what we refer to as his comedy routine, reading incident reports from the day before while we snicker at the stupidity involved. (A typical incident might have someone cutting a finger and needing stitches because they weren't following procedure; my favorite was when someone in a company truck rear-ended a company bus.) We all laugh about it, but safety is a major issue in this line of work, and we all know the dangers. We've had a few close calls ourselves, and another pipeline project made news in March after someone on the test crew made a simple rookie mistake and wound up dead.

Work starts immediately after the morning meeting, and we do our respective tasks until 5 p.m. on a good day – later on a bad day. The days can be long, tedious, and cold – the mercury dips below -20 F in the winter – but the paychecks are worth it. People work a variety of shifts depending on what they do for which company; I myself work six days a week, sometimes seven. Days off are for catching up on sleep and/or nursing hangovers.

My crew is a mix of fresh-faced younger guys and older, well-seasoned vets. Female workers are rare, but not unheard of. Meanwhile, everyone seems to have a plan, whether it's "work a few months, then take a few months off," or "work 'til this job's done, then head to the next."

Broken marriages are one of the oil boom's many casualties. Sometimes women come here with their husbands, only to leave a few months later. The long hours and Fort Mac lifestyle aren't for everyone. One company newsletter quoted an employee saying it was his goal to "outlive both of my ex-wives."

Many couples come here on what's known as "The Five-Year Plan." Take, for example, a husband and wife team from Manitoba: They're both in their forties and have a nice house back home, but they rented an apartment in Fort Mac a few years ago in hopes of accelerating their retirement. Here, they both make more than $200,000 a year – she drives an enormous, Tonka-like truck that hauls 245 metric tons of bitumen at a time, and he's a shift supervisor – and their respective salaries are far more than what they could ever earn in Manitoba, combined. Like many others, they plan to do this for five years, then cash out. Whether they stick to that schedule remains to be seen. It's easy to get addicted to the money, and lots of five-year plans turn to 10-year plans in Fort Mac.

No one on my crew plans on being here for the long haul. After months of early mornings, long days and northern isolation, we're all itching to go home – or maybe to Vegas to blow off some steam. Fort Mac isn't really home for any of us. It's a paycheck, and a nice, big one at that. Whether working here is the right thing to do for the environment, well, that's a whole other question.

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