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Undercover at the Tar Sands: What It's Really Like Working for Big Oil

An anonymous worker reveals conditions at ground zero for Canada's controversial pipelines

Shell has brought in thousands of employees to Alberta to work on its Albian Sands oil project.
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August 28, 2013 11:54 AM 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 second dispatch from one of the world's most controversial jobs.

On its surface, Fort McMurray, Alberta, looks like any other small Canadian city, with rows of new houses, condo developments and a Wal-Mart. Recycling bins line the streets, and residents schlep cloth bags to the store because the community banned plastic bags. But there's one big difference between Fort Mac and other towns: This is ground zero for Canada's controversial tar sands operations. Like tens of thousands of others, I saw green in the tar-like bitumen-drenched sand, and I came here to cash in. (I'm writing anonymously to protect my colleagues, my friends and myself.)

Read Our Undercover Correspondent's First Dispatch from the Tar Sands

The majority of oil-related work happens north of town. Follow Highway 63 for about 20 minutes and you'll see a sprawling series of smoke stacks at the Syncrude Canada Ltd. processing facility. You can smell the oil in the air, and smog hangs across the otherwise crisp northern horizon. Drive further, and things get even worse. Koch Carbon's giant pile of petroleum coke in Detroit is nothing compared to what the oil companies have up here. Shell, Imperial Oil, Exxon, Encana, Husky, BP, Suncor Energy, CNR, Southern Pacific and Petro-Canada all have a stake in this game, and there's an estimated 170 billion barrels of crude on the line.

Thousands of employees are put up in temporary housing settlements. The big "camps" have gyms and rec rooms with pool and ping pong tables; a few even have ice rinks, yoga classes and movie theaters. For the most part, though, it's all insulated aluminum-sided trailers with private sleeping quarters and communal bathrooms.

The camps serving Shell's Albian Sands project and Imperial Oil's Kearl worksite are among the biggest. Shell's complex – two camps collectively known as "the Village" – is home to about 2,500 employees. Meanwhile, Imperial Oil's Wapasu camp houses more than 7,300. It even has its own airstrip to accommodate workers as they fly in and out on chartered 747s.

Wapasu is a dry camp, meaning absolutely no alcohol is allowed. Employees are bussed in and out of the fenced, guarded compound for work, and aren't allowed to leave or have visitors during off-hours. Meanwhile, all rooms are subject to search. There's nothing like coming home from a long day's work, only to find a note stating drug-sniffing dogs searched your room while you were away. Some jokingly refer to Wapasu as "Wapatraz." Over at the Village, things aren't quite as harsh. There's even a bar onsite – but it closes early, and you're not allowed to have more than two drinks per night.

Living in a camp means you get free room and board, including three substantial meals a day. But if you're not careful, the isolation and boredom can wear on you. Many of us get stuck paying inflated prices for cigarettes or smuggled-in drugs and alcohol. There are stories of late-night card games where guys bet – and lose – entire paychecks just for a rush.

Back in Fort McMurray, most of us out-of-towners stay in hotels or overpriced apartments. We're all given a generous union-approved stipend to pay for lodging (and a nice per diem to cover restaurant meals), so if you play your cards right, you can pocket a nice chunk of change. Living out of a hotel room gets old fast, but it beats the hell out of staying in a camp.

Driving is incredibly and dangerous in the tar sands, and Highway 63 is known locally as "the Highway of Death." Fatalities are common, with one death every 1.3 months, on average. There is no bypass around the city, so all the heavy equipment heading to the tar sands has to roll right through Fort McMurray. Logging trucks look small and harmless compared to the massive rigs hauling satellite-sized machinery and components. The biggest load to ever grace the Canadian highway system – an 859-ton module that was bigger than two Olympic swimming pools – passed through earlier this year.

Most of us drive $8-a-gallon gas-guzzling 4x4s, but most of us also have company gas cards, so fuel economy isn't much of a concern. There's always a line-up at the Tim Horton's drive-through, where it can take 30 minutes to get a goddamn coffee. When our crew gathers for our daily meeting, almost everyone leaves their truck running.

One of my coworkers saw me turn off the ignition on a particularly brisk February morning. "Did you just turn off your truck?!" he asked in disbelief. "What are you, some sort of environmentalist?"

I didn't know what to say. I once considered myself somewhat of an environmentalist – I recycle, use energy-efficient light bulbs, and have a compost back home. But here I am, in Fort McMurray, working for Big Oil. I guess I've sort of sold out. What can I say? Even environmentalists have bills to pay.

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