Fort McMurray goes about its business despite oil price drop
Alberta's oilsands hub laces up the skates and hopes for better times
The sudden drop in oil prices is bringing unsettled times to Alberta, the big-spending Canadian province that depends for its prosperity on extracting natural resources.
Alberta's government is trying to find a way to make up for a $7-billion resource revenue shortfall in its coming budget.
In Fort McMurray, the recently racing heart of Canada's oilpatch, people worry, but some things don't change.
The clack-clack of hockey pucks and the laughter of kids are the same there as at winter festivals across Canada.
As children pull on baby blue jerseys, tighten up their laces, and skate across the 11 hockey rinks set up on the frozen Snye River, their parents cart around hot coffee and doughnuts or huddle inside a warming tent on the west side of the river.
The WinterPLAY festival is a welcome distraction for Fort McMurray, a community of about 80,000, about 440 km northeast of Edmonton.
The hub of Northern Alberta's oilsands is surrounded by massive petroleum mining and underground extraction projects. As an economic boom that stretched over two decades suddenly cools, the city is grappling with what comes next.
On the ground, companies big and small have laid off workers, eliminated overtime hours and delayed construction projects. The oil industry's lobby group expects Western Canada's producers to cut spending this year by a third or $23 billion.
Nowhere is that pullback likely to be felt more acutely than in Fort McMurray. Out of the gate, the hardest hit workers will be private contractors, who have already seen much of their work dry up.
The general impression around town is that the low oil prices are just a setback for the growing community. It's an optimism likely bred from a multi-decade run that's pumped so many billions of dollars into the region's economy that most locals have probably stopped counting.
Construction continues on new apartments, roads and bridges. The lifestyle continues to improve as well, with more services and amenities available to residents.
Although companies are spending less, they're still spending. Oilsands players have always seen their operations as long-term investments. That's why even during a bust, people in Fort McMurray are not getting too down.
The distractions of hockey
Whether or not tougher times lie ahead, for now Fort McMurray seems content to go about its business.
Despite the uncertainty, parents are in a good mood as they watch a group of kids battle for a puck on the frozen river. More than 200 players and 37 teams lace up their skates for this year's tournament.
On this day, it seems the only sad faces are those on the losing teams.
"It does a lot for morale," says Dave Higdon, whose son is playing in the tournament. Higdon, who works in the oilsands, says the slowdown should at least stop the recent rapid inflation in the community.
"It's a scary time, but we need this to level things out," he says.
Despite the downturn in the local economy, people have not noticed much change in the community. Restaurants are still busy and grocery store parking lots still fill up. Traffic on congested Highway 63 has not eased up much, either.
Other business owners echo similar sentiments. Cherene Reid, owner of The Tattered Book and Coffee Shop, says the city has the same pace with the price of oil around $50 US a barrel as when it was $100.
"It really hasn't slowed people down," says Reid. "I haven't noticed a big change. Life is still continuing on. People that have been here for a long time don't have that fear of maybe having to leave. People are still going on trips, vacationing, stuff like that."
That's not to say people don't want crude prices to rebound. Everyone here would love to see a resurgence in oil. The oil price plunge in the last year has affected everyone in Fort McMurray, whether a person works for an energy company or not.
"Work slows down a little bit, but you take the good with the bad," says Doug Linneborn, who installs insulation, mostly in the area's industrial plants and refineries. "It's not too bad, though," he says.
"It used to be a rough place but it's a nice place now. Look what they are doing for the kids, it's beautiful."
There are still job opportunities. The Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo has a few dozen positions open. Billboards and signs advertise companies looking to hire.
As Brenna Kimball arrives at the outdoor festival with her husband and two kids, she doesn't seem the least bit concerned about the price of oil, even though her husband works in the oilsands.
"I think the people who live in Fort McMurray and have lived here for a while are doing just fine. They are making it through," she says. "So far so good, no problems yet."