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Fort McMurray: Canada’s Energy Hub

“So much more than a gateway to the oil sands.”

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When the energy sector talks about Fort McMurray, it’s understandable that it borrows from the business of real estate, and emphasizes location-location.

But there is more, much more, to Fort McMurray than its location, adjacent to the fourth-largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Fort McMurray is a busy business centre, of course heavily connected to oil and gas industry and many ancillary services like engineering, construction, oilfield and on-site services, and more, but it is also a very close-knit and resilient community with natural beauty, a large indigenous population that practice their culture and the seasonal good times skiing, snowmobiling, boating and off-roading.

And yes, it continues to earn its rank as – Canada’s ‘Energy Hub.’

Canada’s energy sector is positive about the momentum and the future of the oil sand, a vital factor of the Fort McMurray community. Due primarily to the growth the energy sector experiences in the oil sands, Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo has opportunities to count on.

Energy industry stats show that 15 per cent of Canada’s oil and gas extraction industry workforce is employed in Fort McMurray. There are 100 billion barrels of oil remaining in the oil sands, which is about 100 years of activity. And, within the next seven or so years, the oil sands is projected to contribute $1 trillion to Canada’s GDP.

“Fort McMurray’s location not only offers economic opportunities through the oil sands industry,” says the gung-ho Dianna De Sousa, executive director with the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, “but also provides a high quality of life for its residents with abundant natural beauty, a strong sense of community, excellent family resources, top-notch education, favorable tax policies, affordable housing and reliable healthcare services.”

The region offers excellent resources for families, including the largest recreational centre in North America which provides numerous recreational and educational opportunities for children and families, and enhances the overall quality of Fort McMurray life.

She accepts that the ‘Energy Hub’ perception – and brand – is solidly established throughout Alberta, Canada and the world, but she underscores that while Fort McMurray acknowledges that its primary industry revolves around the energy sector which is the lifeblood of the region, “We emphasize not just the work aspect, but also the broader community experience that is Fort McMurray.”

There’s no doubt about it. Being renowned as Canada’s energy hub is also a potent and invaluable business credential.

According to Kendall Dilling, president of Pathways Alliance, the collaboration of Canada’s largest oil sands companies working together on responsible development, including achieving our goal of net-zero emissions from operations, “For the better part of the past seven decades, Fort McMurray has served as the centre of some of the most advanced energy and environment innovations the world has ever seen.

“The dedication and ingenuity of scientists, engineers, experts and skilled workers has helped develop the most responsibly produced energy in the world. If Alberta is Canada’s energy innovation hub, then Fort McMurray surely is its beating heart.”

For business, and particularly the energy sector, Fort McMurray has many advantages, as well as some challenges.

“There are abundant natural resources, especially oil sands, which drive economic growth,” De Sousa notes. “And high-paying jobs in the energy sector attract skilled workers. There is also a palpable and strong entrepreneurial spirit, with many opportunities for businesses in various sectors, and a growing opportunity to move to a diversified economy, particularly with emerging sectors beyond energy, like sports and Indigenous tourism.”

She admits that reliance on a single industry can pose some long-term risks and some business challenges. “There is economic vulnerability to fluctuations in global oil prices and also ongoing environmental concerns and regulatory changes impacting the energy sector. An indirect business challenge is about talent attraction. “It’s tough to quantify but, camps keep workers from really enjoying the overall community life that Fort McMurray offers and that limited experience can create a negative brand and reputation for the community.”

All energy and non-energy factors considered, a vital aspect of Fort McMurray’s uniqueness is people!

“The community is a beautiful, wonderful home to many families and workers of Pathways Alliance member companies,” Dilling says with enthusiasm. “And for the energy sector, the biggest Fort McMurray advantage is the pool of hearty, experienced and highly skilled workers who work 24/7, 365 days a year through some harsh elements to produce reliable and responsible energy.”

It’s also a bit personal. “I’ve been to Fort McMurray many, many times over my 30-year career, and I am always impressed with the strong sense of community and pride which people have in the energy industry, and their desire to be part of the energy future.”

Business and community leaders also underscore the Fort McMurray toughness and resilience. The 2016 wildfire was a horrific broadside but the community’s ability to recover and rebuild demonstrates spirit and strength. The community is still recovering, not only from the impacts of the wildfires that followed Alberta’s economic downtown, a devastating one-in-a-hundred-year flood and then COVID. Fort McMurray keeps healing, re-building and working to move forward.

Dianna De Sousa maximizes every chance to enthusiastically pitch Forth McMurray for its vibrant business and community opportunities. “The dominance of the energy sector for Fort McMurray business and community growth depends on the context and objectives. While the energy sector is a cornerstone of the local economy, promoting diversification is essential and we strongly emphasize the energy sector’s significance, we also highlight opportunities in other sectors, such as tourism, innovation, education and small business development.

“Diversification is crucial for long-term economic stability and growth,” she says. “Especially in a region closely tied to a single industry.”

Kendall Dilling is an upbeat and realistic energy industry insider. While highlighting the many Fort McMurray positives, he admits to a few challenges. “Let’s face it! The location is a bit more remote than other resource centres, and it’s why top-notch infrastructure and community amenities are so important. But the twinning of highway 63, a fabulous airport and a world-class recreation centre at MacDonald Island are examples of many Fort McMurray’s successes when it comes to being somewhat out of the way but attracting and retaining a skilled workforce.”

Fort McMurray’s long-term future is a positive dynamic, mostly because being the energy hub, the oil sands projects with many years of reserves left, give Fort McMurray a competitive advantage over many other conventional sources of oil around the world.

According to a recent CD Howe Institute report, Canada’s oil sands industry has a “Last Barrel Standing” future. Fort McMurray benefits from the energy sector reality that given the long life and low operating costs of oil sands assets, it is far more economic to maintain oil sands production than to invest in new sources of conventional or offshore oil.

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