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Friction, flow and resistance in the Athabasca oil sands

TILLY COOK  |  15 JUNE 2019  |  ISSUE #4  |  LONG READ

All pictures by the author.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the allure of oil and riches has tantalized settlers in Northern Alberta. Yet for many years the extraction and profitable processing of the oil sands proved elusive. This is in part the result of their physical properties – in particular the ways in which the oil sands are resistant to movement. While crude oil can flow with ease through pipelines, oil sands are viscous and stuck in place. This presents a barrier for those seeking the form of liquid profitability often promised by the oil industry. Focusing in particular on the opposition between the recalcitrance of the oil sands and the hypermobility of the workforce, this article will examine some of the frictions and tensions inherent in this destructive process of extraction. In doing so it will also provide a glimpse into the divergent futures possible in an era of global heating: some characterised by accelerated flows of mobility and others by place-based resistance.


In order to overcome the immovability of the oil sands, the industry has been forced to go to great lengths, often without much success. One of the earliest processing plants, Abasand Oil, burnt to the ground in 1941 and again in 1945 as it attempted to use volatile kerosene to separate oil and sand. In the late 1950s attempts were renewed with a government program named 'project cauldron'. The project was initiated with the promise of detonating nuclear explosives beneath the sands in the hopes of rendering them liquid and transportable. However, with public opinion firmly opposed to nuclear testing, this too was cut short.


It was not until 1967 that commercial production began in earnest. The key to processing the sands effectively was, and still is, to operate on an enormously large and energy-intensive scale. Since 2000, more than two million acres of boreal forest, replete with diverse marsh and wetland ecosystems, have been stripped away by mining operations. This has been made possible by the use of enormous and powerful machinery: haul trucks with tyres that are 13 feet tall and that can carry up to 460 tonnes of material traverse the roads on site. This method of mining continues to be associated with risks not only to the local populations, workers and global environmental systems but also to the companies invested in the process of extraction. In the first place mining in this way is extremely expensive. In order to break even oil must be sold at $70 per barrel and on the day of writing it is valued at barely $60. As a result, the industry is both volatile and driven by the pursuit of efficiency.

One of the key methods of ensuring this efficiency is the fly-in fly-out system of labour employed by the oil industry. An estimated 27,000 people commute in and out of Fort McMurray for the purpose of working in the oil sands. 80% of these workers fly either to company-owned aerodromes or into Fort McMurray’s own local airport. It costs approximately $42,000 a year to commute a single person to and from the oil sands and many companies are looking for opportunities to expand their airstrips and private fleet of planes. The remainder travel on buses or cars into and out of the city – at the peak of the boom 700 buses a day were in circulation around Fort McMurray. More than just the energy extracted from the oil sands, Fort McMurray is characterised by the vast quantity of kinetic energy taken to facilitate the extractive industry. This system of hypermobility is in stark and ironic contrast to the inherent slowness and fixity that defines the oil sands as a substance.


The oil sands industry argues that this regime of constant mobility is necessary to feed its rapacious demands for labour. It must be provided with workers to labour around the clock, driving heavy haul trucks, working in fire stations and warehouses, maintaining machines, operating electricals and testing for gases. These workers' lives revolve around their shift schedules which can range from 7 days of 12-hour shifts with 7 days of break to 21 days of 12-hour shifts with 7 days of break. For many, this means living in isolated work camps far from family and home. It is in camps in which the system of mobility is arrested, one oil worker described the experience of living on camp as akin to being in prison. Yet the oil industry has stated that the fly-in fly-out structure improves the wellbeing of workers, turnover rates and time and cost efficiencies.

The fly-in fly-out system accelerates the system of labour in a way that creates a very specific temporal atmosphere in the oil sands industry. As one worker described: “every single second counts so if we stop producing for a month...the company loses millions in production”. Another worker pithily stated, 'here, time is money'. By relying on a hypermobile workforce, the oil industry is increasing the amount of time that can be spent on extraction and production. Working days are longer and continue until workers are no longer able to labour efficiently at which point a new group replaces them. However, this acceleration of labour, extraction and profit has its limits. Each month sites are forced to schedule monthly “shutdowns” or “turnarounds” in which all vehicles and machinery undergo an intense period of maintenance. At this point extraction comes to a halt. The system of shutdowns reflects the specific temporal tension inherent within the extraction of oil in this context. No matter how efficient the system of labour and extraction, the process cannot be sustained. The viscosity and slowness of oil’s flow are in contrast with the speed of its consumption and the degree to which it has accelerated the modern world.

Not only do the oil sands resist attempts to quicken time, but the workers too are pushed to their temporal limits. Many oil workers describe their time in camp as an endurance test where emotional wellbeing is sidelined in favour of earning capacity. Workers describe the need for a “collapse day” when they return from their shift and many experience exhaustion, depression and weight gain associated with the pattern of the work. Many oil workers recognise the cost that long-distance working has exacted from their relationships and often cite emotional strain as a reason for leaving the industry. While the industry argues that fly-in fly-out labour enables efficiency, in reality it is a regime of mobility that undermines its own workforce.


Not only does the extraction of oil sands create a temporal conflict between oil time, human time and profit-making time, it also has implications for the much broader process of climatic time. The twofold production of carbon dioxide that occurs as a result of the oil sands industry, both in its extraction and then its ultimate use as a fuel, is accelerating the process of global heating. In doing so it is creating a new and unpredictable form of climate time that no longer operates over and above human lives but rather places us in the thick of unpredictable new processes. This may represent the most fundamental point of resistance to the extractive project even though the impacts of the shift in climate time may not be felt until the effects are in fact irreversible. One must concentrate therefore on the more immediate friction that exists between human workers and the system of extraction when looking for opportunities for change.

The future relationship between the oil sands extractive industry and a changing climate can be elucidated in part by returning again to the fly-in fly-out system of labour and the history of extraction in the region. In 1993 a man-made environmental catastrophe – the collapse of the cod fisheries in Nova Scotia – left thousands unemployed. In the aftermath many of these communities looked to, and were actively recruited by, the oil sands industry. It was partly this ecosystem collapse that prompted the development of long-distance commuting from Nova Scotia to Alberta. This same process, intense environmental change leading to extended patterns of mobility for work, may well be repeated at several magnitudes during an era of global heating. This vision of the future would not only force workers to the limits of their wellbeing, but also continue to increase levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


Fortunately, however, resistance to the fly-in fly-out system has also begun to mobilise more positive visions of the future. Local awareness of the negative impacts of fly-in fly-out patterns of work is beginning to augment a movement of resistance to the oil sands industry. In January 2019 councillors in Fort McMurray imposed a moratorium on the development of any new fly-in fly-out work camps. This decision was met with dismay by the industry who warned that it would have a detrimental impact on profits. What is most interesting about this opposition to the oil sands is that it does not come from left wing environmentalists who have long opposed the industry but rather from fairly conservative business leaders in Fort McMurray. Although a moratorium on new work camps will hardly halt the expansion of the oil sands, it is certainly a step in the right direction. It also reveals the potential of diverse forms and sources of resistance to hold the industry to account. This place-based resistance that imagines fairer jobs for workers and the local economy could generate the beginnings of a more sustainable system of work in Northern Alberta.


Despite the industry’s best efforts to create a system of hyperefficient flows of people, oil and capital, the material realities of the oil sands themselves, the lives of oil workers and the limits of the climate create a series of frictions that may ultimately disrupt the industry’s drive towards expansion. Through abrasion and viscosity, the oil sands curb the ability to profitably extract and transport synthetic crude. This material resistance has forced the industry to adopt, among other things, a labour system that relies on an extreme regime of hypermobility that in fact erodes at the base of its workforce. This confluence of friction and flow, of movement and fixity, reveals an industry that is wrought by tension and operating at its limits. This point is important because it is one that is firmly ignored not only by the oil sands industry, but also the Canadian government. By proving that resistance to oil sands expansion comes not only from environmentalists but is also inherent in the system of extraction itself, one can build a more powerful case for a future free from such destructive industries.

Tilly Cook

Tilly recently completed an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at the University of Oxford following a History BA at UCL. Her research interests lie at the intersection of gender and climate change with an increasing focus on historical geographies. Tilly is currently working as a community organiser in West London delivering environmental education projects and improving green space on housing estates.

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