Boom psychology

Perhaps every boom is expected to last forever. Every boom contains within it some skewed logic in which the impossible growth and rapidly amassed wealth undergo a transition from fantastically fluid to some simulacrum of a solid state. The careening boom logic becomes the norm. Luck becomes a strain of genius, and opportunism starts to resemble a chess master’s grand strategy. The boom was built on stuff as solid and true as glass and steel, crafted from the technological brilliance and entrepreneurial daring of a generation of the smartest engineers the nation has ever known, its credibility renewed daily at a rate of 2.4 million barrels. With such lofty heights near enough in the Patch’s collective memory, even the deepest troughs can seem like mere hiccups on a journey headed ever upward.

Turner, Chris. The Patch: The People, Pipelines and Politics of the Oil Sands. Simon & Schuster, 2017. p. 107–8

Scale of bitumen sands investment

Midway through the boom’s first wave, in 2006, a Statistics Canada study reported that Alberta was in the midst of “the strongest period of economic growth ever recorded by any Canadian province.” Annual provincial gross domestic product (GDP) and population growth both cleared 10 percent.

When the oil industry’s champions first pitched the federal and provincial governments on more favourable tax and royalty regimes in the mid-1990s, they promised $25 billion in capital expenditure on oil sands projects within 25 years. They hit that mark inside of five years and kept on charging. More than $200 billion was invested in the oil sands from 1999 to 2013. In 2014, the peak year for investment, $34 billion more in capital poured into the Patch. Alberta collected $5.2 billion in royalties from oil sands production the same year.

Turner, Chris. The Patch: The People, Pipelines and Politics of the Oil Sands. Simon & Schuster, 2017. p. 96

The bitumen sands and global decarbonization

Still, even if it was not recognized in many boardrooms in Calgary or anywhere else in the industry, oil’s dominance could no longer be taken for granted. Climate change was not readily managed like the sludge in a single tailings pond or contained like the mess from a single pipeline spill. This was a more profound challenge to the industry’s story of progress — perhaps an existential one. In the years after Shell unveiled its two scenarios, environmental activists began to stand in opposition to one new fossil fuel project after another, and bankers and investors started to ask industry executives tough questions about whether their reserves represented future profits or “stranded assets.” And starting with the proposed Keystone XL project, a major new pipeline that intended to carry Alberta’s bitumen from a storage terminal on the prairie south of Fort McMurray to the Gulf of Mexico, the oil sands became the front line in a larger conflict. In the story of progress being told with climate change at its centre, the world had no choice but to move as quickly as possible toward an economy free of greenhouse gas emissions. For a variety of reasons connected only tangentially to the daily operations of an oil sands site — American political considerations and universal symbolic impact, in particular — the elimination of the Patch’s daily ration of the world’s oil supply came to be seen as the essential first step in this decarbonization process.

Turner, Chris. The Patch: The People, Pipelines and Politics of the Oil Sands. Simon & Schuster, 2017. p. 15–6

Fort McMurray in 2007

The city existed in a perpetual state of growth and agitation. Numbers were murky at the peak of the boom — no one could get a clear count of the “shadow population” living in work camps and other short-term arrangements — but safe to say there were many hundreds like Raheel Joseph arriving each month. Hundreds and hundreds of young people, young men especially, who’d come from somewhere far away because here was a place where the full scale of opportunity a person could grasp all at once was still an open question. And so there were too many people and there was too much money and there was not enough of anything else in Fort McMurray in 2007. A little snow or a single stalled truck, and traffic on Highway 63 was pure gridlocked chaos. You went to Walmart, and no one was stocking shelves — they couldn’t afford the wages to pay someone to do it, and there was no time. They just put the groceries or housewares or work clothes or whatever new stuff made it to the boomtown that week out on pallets, and the pallets would be empty within hours. This was really how things went, day in and day out. Any warm body could find a job, but try to get a table at a restaurant, try to get a coffee at Tim Hortons in less than half an hour, try to find a bed to sleep in.

Turner, Chris. The Patch: The People, Pipelines and Politics of the Oil Sands. Simon & Schuster, 2017. p. 5

Related: Boomtowns and bitumen