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Oilsands: The view on the ground

This blog entry is the second in a series by our videojournalist, Saša Petricic, who travelled to Fort McMurray, Alberta to cover the local response to the international outcry by environmentalists against Alberta's oilsands.
 
With the sprinkling of snow and the glow from an early winter sky, the scene seems idyllic - the hills and ponds, even the occasional deer, of the northern Alberta wilderness.
 
Oh, did I mention the smoke stacks? And that other white stuff, the clouds they produce? It actually turns into a darker grey as the smoke from a dozen or so oilsands plants merges on the horizon.
 
I am driving north from Fort McMurray, weaving between the plants along Highway 63.  My driver and tour guide is Phillip Jean.  Born and raised in this area, he now runs some of the huge equipment that scrapes and carries the oil-drenched sand from the mines to the processors.
 
There, with help of enormous amounts of water and natural gas, it is turned into sludge which can be piped south for further processing. It's that use of natural gas that earns this oil the title of 'dirtiest to produce'. Most of it will eventually be used in the US.
 
On this day, his day off, Jean shows me the equipment yards where trucks and bulldozers are assembled, rebuilt and steamed clean. He introduces me to the people who do that work, and takes a swing through the camps where they live. The prefab trailers, stacked 3 and 4 high, remind me of inner city apartment complexes. They are luxurious inside, I'm told, but a little drab outside.
 
Jean tells me workers here can make just about as much money as they want. Regular shifts average 12 hours a day, and overtime is plentiful. One 'steamer' we meet says he clears $10,000 a month, spending about $1,500 to live here. That part isn't cheap.
 
And all because the world wants and needs oil.
 
That's why many people here see the condemnation of Canada's oilsands as not much more than hot air. After all, this corner of Alberta supplies the United States with more than 20 per cent of its oil, and helps make Canada the biggest provider of petroleum to the U.S., ahead of Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
 
I ask Jean whether he worries about pollution. After he points out that companies are monitored by government agencies, and that they've installed all sorts of devices to clean up emissions, he says, of course.  Especially on days when the smell of oil is strongest.
 
But what do you do, he asks.  Do I pick up everything I own and move somewhere where they don't have plants?  Or is the right stance to oppose it? Take a stand against it and see where it would get me?
 
I could be wondering where my next meal's coming from, he says.

Indeed, that seems to be a common view around here. No-one I spoke to said the plants are perfectly clean, or that pollution isn't a problem. But, they said, how else would we put food on the tables?

And, maybe more to the point, what would you put in your gas tanks?

Read Part 1 of Sasa's blog series, The Alberta oilsands: back in the spotlight.

Watch Sasa's video Oilsands: The view on the ground.

Read Part 3 of Sasa's blog series Live in a boomtown

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