Located 435km (270 miles) northeast of Edmonton along a mostly two-lane -- and heavily traveled -- highway, Fort McMurray is the heart of Alberta's current oil boom. A dusty outpost by anyone's measure, it's the fastest-growing city in a province of fast-growing cities; in 2006, the population of Fort McMurray was about 65,000 people; by 2012, it's expected to almost double, to 120,000.
That would be impressive all by itself, but especially so when you consider that Fort McMurray was only 25,000 people in the mid-90s. This is boomtown, and there's one reason for it: oil. The oil sands are no sudden discovery, even if the wealth they now beget is relatively new; when settlers first arrived here in the late 18th century, the native Cree people used the mucky bitumen to seal their canoes. People have been trying to turn a profit from the thick, oily glop for nearly a century; the problem has always been not that it's impossible to extract the oil from the muck, but rather that it's never really made economic sense -- until now.
With oil sitting at or below C$30 a barrel up until the late '90s, it cost more to produce oil here than it could be sold for. But all that has changed in recent years, and radically so; with oil frequently well over C$100 a barrel (it peaked just above C$140 in the summer of 2008), oil sands refining not only makes sense, but also is an extraordinary cash cow. Workers flock from all over the country to capitalize on extraordinarily high wages -- as much as C$25 an hour to work in a fast-food restaurant; an easy six figures to drive a truck for an oil services company -- and still, the labor shortage is the biggest story here. Oil companies simply can't get enough people to do all the work that needs to be done.
A reason for that is the pace. With oil sky-high, major oil companies from all over the world have set up shop here, staking claims to various plots with the intention of digging up as much ground as possible, and as quickly as possible. What comes up, as anyone in the oil patch will tell you, must come down, and with that as the prevailing sentiment you shouldn't be surprised to find a scar in the boreal landscape as large as England -- about 140,000 square kilometers, all told.
That's not the total area dug up already, but rather is the amount of oil sands leases approved by the Alberta government. Oil sands development is tricky, and dependent on prices. It's also cyclical, and an economic slowdown may take some of the explosiveness out of the Fort McMurray boom. Indeed, some catch-up would be warranted: For all its wealth, the city feels more like a dead-end town, with only one main street, a handful of places to eat, and not much more than a massive Wal-Mart for shopping necessities (there's a Starbucks in the Safeway, however -- a small sign of civilization).
This is not a place to visit for those interested in charming small towns; it's a rough-living frontier overloaded with transient get-rich-quick seekers and little sense of community. But still, difference-makers are trying to lay the groundwork for a better future. Twenty years from now, Fort McMurray could be a northern jewel; it could also be a toxic mess, mostly abandoned in the wake of expended oil reserves and a turn to alternative energy. But, if nothing else, it's fascinating in that it represents the crux upon which our future as a society will pivot.