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Page added on October 30, 2007

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Mud, sweat and tears

The vast tar sands of Alberta in Canada hold oil reserves six times the size of Saudi Arabia’s. But this ‘black gold’ is proving a mixed blessing for the frontier town of Fort McMurray, fuelling both prosperity and misery. As the social and environmental toll mounts, Aida Edemariam reports on the dark side of a boom town.

You’ve only got to stroll down Hardin Street to the main drag, then hang a left and walk a couple more short blocks, to see what Fort McMurray is about. It wouldn’t be the whole story, but you would catch the drift.
You’d pass the Boomtown Casino, strip malls, and a club called Cowboys proudly advertising “naughty schoolgirl nights”. Then the Royal Canadian Mounted Police station, the municipal offices, the Oil Sands Hotel, and Diggers bar, with its advertisement for exotic dancers. You would be passed by Humvees and countless pick-up trucks, each more souped up than the next, many covered in dried mud, many carrying further 4×4s – in winter, snowmobiles; in summer, all-terrain vehicles on which to go chasing through the bush, which is visible from the main street. And if the wind is from the north-west, you can smell oil on the air: heavy, slightly sour, unmistakable. Round here, they call it the smell of money.

As the Middle East has become more unstable, as Iraq has boiled into chaos, other, more unexpected places have flourished, and none more so than Fort McMurray. Five hours’ drive north of Edmonton, in Alberta, it has always been a frontier town, and even before the first white explorers came fur-trapping, the Indians knew that this place sat on oil – they used it to waterproof their canoes. The trouble has always been that it’s not conventional crude, easily liberated from the earth, but tar sands (also known as oil sands) – a mixture of sand, water and heavy crude which is much more difficult and expensive to extract. It can cost about Can$26 ($US27;



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