An Oil-Fueled Boomtown in Canada's Subarctic Forty years ago, Fort McMurray was a subarctic outpost with 1,600 people and little else. Today, it's a northern Canadian boomtown of 65,000 with traffic jams and workers from around the globe making six-figure salaries. Behind that staggering growth: the price of oil.
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An Oil-Fueled Boomtown in Canada's Subarctic

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An Oil-Fueled Boomtown in Canada's Subarctic

An Oil-Fueled Boomtown in Canada's Subarctic

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Forty years ago, Fort McMurray in northern Canada was a subarctic outpost with a dusty main street, three restaurants and just 1600 people. Today, it's a boomtown of 65,000. There are traffic jams, a casino and workers from around the globe, many of whom make six-figure salaries.

The town has higher oil prices to thank for the growth. Fort McMurray sits on the edge of Alberta's oil sands, some of the largest reserves on the planet. Extracting that oil is expensive, but with prices still high, companies are expanding their operations.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

(Soundbite of music)

FRANK LANGFITT: On weekend nights, the line at Fort McMurray's Newfie Club stretches down the sidewalk. If you don't get in here by 9:00, you may not get in at all. The bar is packed with workers who've traveled more than 2,000 miles from Canada's East Coast.

Daniel Teasdale came from Nova Scotia in February. He runs an excavator. This year, he expects to make more than $115,000 U.S., and he's just 20 years old.

Mr. DANIEL TEASDALE (Excavator, Fort McMurray): I like the place, but I like the money the best out of anything. It's just triple what I was making at home. Even more. It's unbelievable. Money is nothing out here. People are throwing money all the time. It's just money, money, money.

LANGFITT: Fort McMoney. That's what the workers call it. And all that cash allows them to buy things they could only dream of back home where good jobs are scarce.

Unidentified Woman: Good evening. North Star Ford.

LANGFITT: In June, Fort McMurray's Ford dealership sold more vehicles than any other in Canada. Colin Matthews, a 25-year-old oil sands worker, is here today looking for a new truck, his second in two years. He likes the F-150. The sticker price? $45,000.

Mr. COLIN MATTHEWS (Oil Worker, Fort McMurray): It's something to show off when we go back to Newfoundland next year. It's going to be a good sense of pride, knowing that you worked so hard and you've got something nice to show for it.

LANGFITT: Beneath the forests of pine and poplar outside Fort McMurray lie an estimated 174 billion barrels of oil. Only Saudi Arabia has more. The oil is mixed with sand and it costs a lot to separate and process. But even if the oil prices fell by $20 a barrel, operations here would still be profitable.

Companies like Canada's Syncrude have carved out mines the size of canyons.

I'm standing here in the bottom of what is Syncrude's oil sand pit. It's 250 feet deep. And coming by right now is a giant dump truck. It's got to be over 20 feet tall and it's piled high with black oil sands. It looks about the size of a house. The weight is so much you can see the tires actually sink into the road as they go by.

The people who drive these trucks make $80,000 to $100,000 a year with overtime here in Canadian dollars. Those kinds of salaries have helped nearly double the population of Fort McMurray in a decade. And the people keep coming.

(Soundbite of airport announcements)

More than 30 commercial flights touch down at the city's tiny airport each day. Companies are drawing workers from four other continents, turning Fort McMurray into a surprisingly diverse community.

(Soundbite of salsa music)

LANGFITT: The city's salsa club is meeting tonight at Digger's, a local bar. Catherine Martin, from Bolivia, is teaching steps.

Ms. CATHERINE MARTIN (Salsa dance teacher, Fort McMurray): One, two, three. Five, six, seven. Very good. Exactly.

LANGFITT: Her students are from everywhere.

Ms. MARTIN: I know people from Iran. I know people from Israel. I know people from Lebanon. I know people from South America - all over different countries in South America. Asia - a lot of Asian people as well.

LANGFITT: Joseph Garnes is an old timer by McMurray standards. He came here from the Caribbean a decade and a half ago. Today, he's attending the city's heritage festival. The turnout looks more like a New York street fair. Indians dance in their native headdress while Muslim immigrants from South Asia watch, wearing headscarves.

Speaking over a log-splitting contest, Garnes says he's become attached to the place.

Mr. JOSEPH GARNES (Oil Worker, Fort McMurray): Back in Trinidad, we drilled for the oil. Didn't know what open pit mining was until I got here in Fort McMurray. But I came and enjoyed it. And I would go and come back, but Fort McMurray is my home. I'll be here for a long time.

LANGFITT: It isn't easy luring capable workers to a place where temperatures can plunge to 40 below. Companies offer all kinds of incentives, including on site work camps with steak dinners and satellite TV. The camp at Canadian Natural Resources has a Tim Horton's, Canada's wildly popular coffee chain. The companies also built an airstrip, where it flies in workers on a 737 for 10-day shifts.

Neil Camarta overseas a project for Petro-Canada.

Mr. NEIL CAMARTA (Petro-Canada): Some of our competition are offering signing bonuses in the order of $20,000 Canadian, which is about $18,000 U.S., as a signing bonus. Some companies are offering an incentive package where if you stay a couple of years, you get a kind of a staying bonus, which may be in the range of $50,000 to $100,000.

LANGFITT: For workers, competition to find a place to live in Fort McMurray is just as fierce. The influx has driven the rental vacancy rate to less than one percent. Mobile homes can run as high as $300,000.

Lance Boucier(ph) is one of the city's top real estate agents. He took me on a tour of one of Fort McMurray's nicest suburbs, where single family homes are packed in so tight, you can practically jump from roof to roof.

Mr. LANCE BOUCIER (Real estate agent): This subdivision is called Wood Buffalo, so the houses down here on 40-foot wide lots by about 118 square feet. The house that we're going to look at is a two story house, 1720 square feet with a double attached garage. The house is currently listed at $539,000.

LANGFITT: Facing those kind of prices, some newcomers bunk at the Salvation Army, which is always full.

Steven Poirier is watching a DVD before dinner. Like others at the shelter, he thought he'd just walk into a high paying oil sands job. But he didn't do his homework. He lacks the right safety certification and is now doing renovation.

Mr. STEVEN POIRIER (Resident): I came from Cornwall, Ontario. The way people talked down there, was like it was a gold mine here. And I got here and it's harder to get work than you think.

LANGFITT: But what really jolts new arrivals like Poirier is the cost of living.

Mr. POIRIER: Everything is way too expensive here. Like food. I went to IGA just to buy a thing of bologna and it's like $6, you know, where we could pay $3 at home - that's double the price. The bread is $3 a loaf. It's unreal.

LANGFITT: Growth is straining the city in other ways as well. Around 5:00, traffic backs up a half mile outside of town. After dark, junkies stagger around the parking lot at the 7-Eleven.

Frances Jean runs a sub shop and a carwash nearby. She says the boom's social problems are taking a toll.

Ms. FRANCES JEAN (Shop owner): You know, there's a lot of homeless people here in town now. But they're not really our local homeless people. They're people who have come to town. They have gotten involved with drugs, they've lost their jobs and then they're just drifting around all over. I see them on my carwash, selling drugs at 12:00 noon. I live a block from here, but at night, I won't walk home.

LANGFITT: The boom at Fort McMurray shows no sign of slowing. Firms are planning $5 billion worth of projects every year. As long as oil remains over $40 a barrel, companies say they can make money here.

Back at the Newfie Club, Daniel Teasdale relishes the possibilities.

Mr. TEASDALE: Well, I have 10 kids in my family. And I have three older brothers and a twin brother and a younger brother, and I was talking to every one of them today and they all want to come out.

LANGFITT: Why not? Seven months ago, Teasdale was digging out basements for less than $10 an hour in Nova Scotia. Now he's making six figures and saving for a house. Teasdale says he plans to stay in Fort McMurray for years.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

BLOCK: Tomorrow on Morning Edition, hear how one Fort McMurray restaurant beat the labor crunch by importing cooks from Sri Lanka.

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