Sunday, December 15, 2013

Oil Sands or Pushing Dirt

The oil sands industry is a big one in every sense of the word. Unless you've been involved in some aspect of it it's difficult to really imagine a machine so huge and all-encompassing as it is. There are literally thousands and thousands of people involved. There are billions and billions of dollars involved. The heavy equipment used at the mines and at the refineries is so massive it is almost beyond imagining. And the entity that is the oil sands industry runs like a very well oiled machine (forgive the comparison) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. I've been watching and learning for 7 weeks now and I still have a hard time comprehending it's enormity.

 These guys and gals work long hours. A lot. You think you've got a bad commute. Some of these folks have a 1.5 hour bus ride to the mine. And of course, a 1.5 hour ride back. Each shift. And a shift is 12 hours. There are some pretty strict rules in place for these folks as well. No phones. No drugs. No drinking. No exceptions. And for good reason. Safety is number one, not because the companies are that compassionate, but because injuries and death slow down getting to the bottom line. It's bad for business in a number of ways. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are many people in those companies who genuinely don't want to see a worker injured but the reality of business is that it's all about making money. And if the people uncover dinosaur bones, fossilized or petrified, the site has to be shut down so the paleontologists can come in and painstakingly remove them to get them to a museum as intact as possible. I've heard a few stories of guys just continuing on with their work and reburying their find. I understand the thinking, but at the same time, the scientist in me cringes.

 But it all comes down to the bottom line. Speaking of which, the bottom line for the people in the industry is a good one. They work hard for their money and quite often, family life is sacrificed. A lot of the workers live in camps closer to the mines. Some of the camps are very nice, I've been told, with quite a few amenities (including a Tim Hortons coffee shop at the site I visited earlier this week), but as Kyle (my fellow boarder) has told me, living in the camps means you're with the same people 24/7, working and living, and it can really get on your nerves. A lot of folks come here on a two year or 5 year plan, intending to sock away some money and go back home. There's money to be sure, but few actually save enough to make it worth while. All of a sudden they're getting a huge pay cheque and they start buying all the toys that go along with living in the north: big trucks, skidoos, ATVs, vacations down south a couple of times a year...I have only encountered a few people who actually saved money.

The demographic that works here in the oil sands industry is young, early thirties, blue collar and these are the guys (and gals) who best exemplify the "multiplier effect". These folks get a pile of money and then spend it on consumer goods, thus keeping those dollars in the economy. The use of the money has been multiplied. There are a bunch of formulae to determine the numerical value but it's way beyond me. The point is, if you want to stimulate the economy, give good paying jobs to construction workers, labourers, etc. and they'll keep the money circulating. And that's exactly what's happening up here. I really didn't mean to turn this into an economics lesson, but am I ever glad I took an economics class when I went back to school. It's all coming back to me now and I'm actually seeing it in action. Not just with what I'm observing, but I have been writing news stories of late on the financial end of things that a few years ago I wouldn't have understood, let alone been able to write.

    This is Syncrude operations. Well, a little bit of it.

  That's Kyle (6 foot 3)  in a bucket of a drag line. Some of these giant machines are on display close to the Syncrude site. You can't begin to imagine the size of them until you're right next to them. Or in them.

    And that's a bucketwheel.

Each bucket is about 6 feet long, the whole wheel about 3 stories tall. They don't use these machines in the oil sands anymore as traditional trucks and shovels are more cost efficient. Mind you, the trucks are huge as are the shovels. The tires on the trucks alone are 12 feet high and the trucks have a capacity of 400 tons. Kyle and Joe both drive big-haul trucks as part of their job and Joe sometimes will haul 18 loads in a shift. You do the math.

And now I've figured out how to properly format the blog again. Should be easier to read.

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