Since 1999, the population of Fort McMurray has nearly doubled. Primarily, this is on account of the oil sands: unconventional petroleum reserves whose exploitation is being driven by high prices and geopolitics. The demand for labour is dramatically increasing its price, both directly and indirectly. Apparently, inexperienced truck drivers can expect to make $100,000 per year. Shell has also just opened a 2,500 unit housing complex for its oil sands employees, part of their $12 billion in local infrastructure spending.
With oil around $90 a barrel and the atmosphere still being treated as a carbon dump, this is not terribly surprising. That said, such projects are certain to develop increasing momentum of their own. Once they bring enough jobs and money, they are hard for a provincial government to not support – especially if many of the environmental costs are being borne by people outside the province or by future generations. Internalizing environmental externalities through taxation or regulation becomes progressively more difficult as the incentive of certain parties to preserve the status quo increases. Such asymmetries are likely to give oil sands development a harmful legacy in terms of general policy development, in addition to its climate change effect and local environmental impacts.