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'The challenge is real': Syncrude commits to bolstering Fort McMurray economy

A top executive with Syncrude painted a grim image of Fort McMurray's economic state at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, but said the company is committed to helping the community gain new residents.

Syncrude's managing director says the community is facing low oil prices, closing businesses

Syncrude has committed to helping attract more residents to Fort McMurray. (David Bell/CBC)

A top executive with Syncrude painted a grim image of Fort McMurray's current economic state at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday, but said the company is committed to helping the community gain new residents.

Doreen Cole, managing director of Syncrude, gave a keynote speech saying Fort McMurray's boom days are over, but the company is going to continue to work with the municipality to attract new residents and support local businesses.  

The company has "not been immune" to the hard times, and that was compounded by a series of "major liability events" from 2015 to 2018 that have harmed workers and damaged equipment, she said.

"The recovery process certainly took its toll," said Cole.

Cole added that she's noticed businesses closing in the community, and noted she tried to go to Wood Buffalo Brewing Company recently only to find that it shut down. 

"It seems that now, more than ever, our community seems to be surrounded by uncertainty," said Cole. 

Housing prices are down and hotel occupancy rates are barely above 40 per cent, she said.

"The challenge is real."

But Cole said she is optimistic, because the company has worked with the municipality in the past to build the community and get through hard times.  

Doreen Cole says Fort McMurray won't be seeing another boom, and Syncrude is adjusting accordingly. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

One of her goals is to remain reliable and get the company's costs under control, "so we can be both regionally and globally competitive in the oil business," she said.

The company is facing challenges like growing business costs, added regulatory burdens and an "uncertain public policy environment."

For example, she said it's taking longer to get projects, such as the Mildred Lake extension, approved. The approval process for the project took seven and a half years, and Syncrude is still finishing some of the details. 

Cole emphasized that the project would only sustain the company's oil production, not grow it, and there are no new impacts or tailings facilities associated with the work. She said that project will extend the mine's life by 15 years. 

Cole said that they're working on making Fort McMurray a more enticing place for workers to live. This year they've hired about 200 people, with the majority being Fort McMurray residents. 

Syncrude is putting resources into training women to work on site, encouraging employees to use the community's facilities like the pool and movie theatre, and working with local businesses to create incentive programs for employees, Cole said. 

Mayor 'optimistic'

Mayor Don Scott said he was encouraged by Cole's speech and said he would like to see more oil companies make similar commitments to Fort McMurray. 

"I want the other companies to be coming to the Chamber of Commerce and giving the same kind of speech, committing to the region like Syncrude did today. That's the kind of leadership this region needs."

Scott proposed a camp moratorium that was defeated earlier this year. It would have banned work camps within 75 kilometres of Fort McMurray. 

Syncrude's plans for bringing more people into Fort McMurray, instead of living in camps, has made him optimistic, Scott said.

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