Posted 9/04/13 (Wed)
I was glancing through some old articles this morning and came across this article about Fort McMurray in Alberta. That’s north of here if you don’t know your geography! Shirley, as a legislator had been invited to a meeting in Edmonton and a tour of the sands by the Alberta parliament. I found it interesting now, as North Dakota has kind of developed their own “Fort McMurrays” to recall my impression of this Canadian city. And this trip was before the debate on a pipeline crossing the States carrying in this oil. I thought it was kind of interesting. I hope you do.
When Shirley and I were in Canada we had a chance to tour the “oil sands” of Fort McMurray. Now, Fort McMurray is not a place you would want to spend a lot of time in. It is a city that exploded from a hunting, trapping, and fishing village of a thousand people, to a booming mining city of 75,000 people, with another 20,000 workers living in company camps. They are a city that is struggling to keep up with their infrastructure of schools, hospitals, roads, and housing. The mining of the oil sands pays a high wage. And it takes a high wage to live. The average cost of a small, two-bedroom house (twelve hundred square feet) is over $600,000!
The oil is mined pretty much the same as North Dakota’s lignite coal. Draglines, scrapers, huge trucks (three stories high), conveyors, and slurry lines. But the footprint is immense. The mines go for miles and miles. Reclamation, although progressing, is far behind.
One of the first things you notice when flying into the project is the sulphur. This is a by-product of the mining process. They melt it, pour it into huge blocks, and stack it like a farmer stacks bales. If he has lots of bales. It looks like they are going to build pyramids overlooking Canada.
That got me to recalling.
Now, I used to smoke. Haven’t for years. But when I was a cool, young Marlboro Man, I was a smoker. You’ve watched those cowboy shows on TV. Where the cool guy just reaches down and strikes a match on his leg. Clint Eastwood. Then light that little cigar. Think Pall Mall. I was cooler than that.
Grandpa Herb and I were driving to the river with a pickup load of feed to cake cows. On the way to the river we had to go around a curve around this steep butte. The trail was carved into the side of the butte. It was called “Suicide!” Anyway, I was a cool Pall Mall smoker. One morning, just as we started around “suicide” I went to light a cigarette. But being cool, I just flicked that big old farmer match off my teeth.
Well, what makes a match light is that chunk of sulphur on the end of that stick. And when I struck that match, I used a little too much force. And that burning sulphur broke off and fell down behind my lip. Like a good chew of Norwegian snooze.
I let out a scream and was trying to put out that fire, hold the pickup on the road, and swear all at the same time!!! When I got the pickup stopped we were hanging over the edge of Suicide. That piece of sulphur had melted into my lip and even the dogs were wanting out of the pickup!
Grandpa, who never got too excited about anything, just looked up and said, “Let’s smoke when we get past this curve.”
Man, you don’t know how many matches I broke trying to light the darn things on my leg after that.
Anyway, back at the oil sands. It is the second largest oil deposit in the world. Behind only Saudi Arabia. It is an expensive, labor-intensive project. Lots of people and lots of machinery. It is costing over twenty dollars a barrel to produce the bitumen that is then further processed into synthetic crude to ship to us. Bitumen is valued at about sixty percent of oil. So, at eighty or ninety dollar oil, it looks like they are going to be mining oil for quite a while.
It was a great trip. I learned a lot. And I don’t learn stuff real easy anymore. If I remember, I’m going to take you into the hold ’em game in Edmonton next week. And maybe swing out to Shane Franklin’s ranch at Bonnyville and look at some bucking horses!