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The Alberta oilsands - back in the spotlight

This blog entry is the first in a series by our videojournalist, Saša Petricic, who is traveling to Fort McMurray, Alberta to cover the local response to the international outcry by environmentalists against Alberta's oilsands.

Yesterday morning, I certainly didn't expect to be on a plane to Fort McMurray. And yet, here I am, headed to northern Alberta on a few hours notice - my camera in the overhead bin, my editing laptop in a box somewhere in the hold below me. I am traveling alone, as I normally do. A one-man television crew known as a Videojournalist, in search of a story for The National.

What's drawing me to Fort McMurray? The same thing that's bringing most of the people on this flight, and thousands of others in the past few years - the sand and oil mixture of muck called the oilsands. Black, gooey gold. The latest and perhaps biggest boom in a province that relies on them to overcome the inevitable periods of bust.

Earlier this year, it looked as if the oilsands themselves were losing steam. That demand for this expensive, labour-intensive oil was flagging as the biggest market for it - the United States economy - was headed for bust. It didn't quite work out that way, partly because of new investment from China, partly because the cost of extracting the oil actually fell to a level that was profitable, even as oil prices declined.. Besides, it's hard to ignore what's billed as the second biggest oil reserve in the world, after Saudi Arabia.

So Fort McMurray, the town in the middle of this gold rush, chugs on.  It not only generates oil and fortunes for the people producing it, but pollution and rapidly growing controversy.

That's what is taking me there.

You see, over the past few weeks, the Alberta oilsands have become the symbol of the sort of irresponsible development behind global warming, not just in Canada, but on a world scale. Environmentalists have demonstrated against it across Europe, newspaper columns in Britain have concluded that "this thuggish petro-state is today the greatest obstacle to a deal in Copenhagen" because of it, Al Gore has called it the single most important cause of climate change.

Whether the oilsands development actually is that or not seems almost beside the point anymore. With world leaders converging on Copenhagen next week to look for a solution to this very issue, the heat on Canada and this massive Alberta development is only expected to increase.

The international outcry against the oilsands, and Canada, has all happened somewhat quickly, catching even some of my editors off guard. (That explains why I'm being rushed out here.)

People in Denmark, who haven't even heard of this town, will be thinking of it and talking about it. What will the people at ground zero of this controversy be thinking and talking about?

From my years covering Western Canada, including Alberta, I can bet it will come as a bit of a surprise in Fort McMurray.  But will it be met with indifference or indignation?

That's what I'm heading to find out.

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

Read Part 2 of Sasa's blog series, Oilsands: The view on the ground

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

Find out more about Saša Petricic on our website.