Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:
A Complete Guide
Finding Opportunity in Canada's North
Working in the oil sands is a bit like being part of a modern-day gold rush, like the ones in California or the Klondike a century before. People from every corner of the globe and every walk of life have flocked to northern Alberta to help build the plants, pipelines and wells that can feed the world’s insatiable thirst for oil. Titanic forces have been set in motion in the boreal forest. Developing the oil sands is likely the largest industrial undertaking in Canadian history. It may be one of the largest in all human history. It really is difficult to grasp the scale of it all until you see it with your own eyes, at once impressive and terrifying. Virtually every multinational oil giant is present in the Athabasca oil sands, one of earth's last remaining great deposits of petroleum. They are stumbling over each other to invest billions, moving heaven and earth to boost capacity and meet production quotas. To do this they need lots of people, and they are willing to pay handsomely for their services. The pay is extraordinarily high and a few years hard work can be turned into a fortune. Even faint glimmerings of competence are rewarded with rapid advancement. There really is one major difference between today’s rush in ‘black gold’, and the gold rushes of the 19th Century: This one is a much safer bet for the average person in search of opportunity.
In August 2012 I stepped off the plane at Fort McMurray’s ramshackle airport. I had a vague notion I would find a high-paying unskilled labour job for a few months that would help me pay down my student loan. I had no experience or connections. I had no idea where to start. I didn’t think it would be easy. I was prepared for the worst. I expected the shifts to be arduous, the bosses abusive, the work dangerous, the environment destroyed.
Yet I wanted to test my mettle, to see if I could actually survive in Canada's Wild West. I wanted to have an adventure before inevitably settling down to a career behind a computer desk. I also wanted to see history in the making: after spending so much time studying the role energy plays in our society, I’ve become convinced that for good or ill the oil sands will shape Canada’s destiny for decades to come.
It turned out that succeeding in the oil sands was a lot easier than I’d expected.
Within two weeks I’d found my first job as a road construction labourer, earning $1,600 a week. I quickly switched to another job where I grossed around $1,800. A couple months later I settled on a new job as a site services maintenance worker, grossing around $2,200 a week. The shifts were 14 days on, 7 days off, so counting the off weeks this came out to roughly $80,000 a year before taxes. Since I lived in an all-expenses-paid work camp I banked almost all of what I made.
I soon discovered that the reality of life in the oil sands bore little resemblance to what I'd come to expect from reading about it in the media. The people are friendly, diverse and well-meaning. The jobs are not only abundant but surprisingly easy and safe. The working conditions are fair and the work camps comfortable.
Bridging the Debate
My aims in writing this guide are twofold. The first is to educate. Much of what is printed in the media about the oil sands tells only part of the story and is presented through a relentlessly partisan lens. As such there is a deficit in the highly polarized public debate. It's as if people on either side of the fence are living in two completely separate realities. Those in favour of development easily wave away very real concerns about pollution and climate change, believing development at breakneck speed is the only solution. On the other hand those vigorously opposed to development dismiss the very real benefits the oil sands bring to the lives of thousands of workers and their families across the country, and they are quick to villify those who choose to work there. In this poisoned atmosphere little constructive debate is occuring.
A number of experts have made a compelling case for a middle path. If we look at the big picture we realize that development of the oil sands is only a symptom of a global economy deeply addicted to oil. Until we kick that addiction we will still need to extract more oil every day to run our machines, and because we are running out of cheap oil we're inevitably going to have to start resorting to increasingly damaging sources of it, like the oil sands, oil shales and the Venezuelan heavy crudes. Until we can solve our demand problem we are going to need oil from the oil sands. The damage an oil shortage would do to the global economy outweighs the climate impact of oil sands development. Therefore I believe we should negotiate a path ahead that admits some development of the oil sands while maximizing the benefit to all Canadians, safeguarding the environment and meeting our climate obligations. It can be done. While taking numerous environmental mitigation measures, revenues from the sale of expensive bitumen could be funneled into the incredibly urgent and incredibly gargantuan task of transitioning to a post-oil economy. It's a transition that should be the central pillar in every political party's platform, and one that should have begun in earnest 40 years ago.
The Learn section of this guide will seek to answer several questions: What are the oil sands and how are they extracted? Will there be demand for Alberta oil in the future? What are the environmental impacts of development? Finally, is it ethical to work in the oil industry?
A How To Guide
The second aim of this guide is to explain in detail how you too can go to the oil sands and walk away with fat stacks. In the Jobs section I have laid out the sorts of jobs available, and given a step-by-step rundown of how to secure one. So you know what to expect when you get there, I've explained in the Lifestyle section my personal experiences in detail, including the weather, the camps, the work load, and the people I met. At the end there's a short essay on that much maligned city at the centre of it all, Fort McMurray.
Perhaps you are like me: you graduated with a B.A., saddled with debts and an uncertain path forward in life. Maybe you simply crave financial freedom, adventure, and a desire to see simultaneously amazing and alarming feats of engineering and human ingenuity on the margins of our civilization. Then you can do this too, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, level of education or physical fitness. So long as you can legally work in Canada, have a basic grasp of the English language including reading and writing, and are physically capable of work, then you can do this. I'm not an expert on the oil sands, but I was there for long enough to get a sense of the place, and so far five of my friends have successfully found work through the same methods proposed in this guide. None of them, I think, regret the experience.
Make no mistake; it is a tough lifestyle. It is monotonous and sometimes almost unbearably lonely. The weather conditions are frequently atrocious. The easy money can be addicting and intoxicating, and many fritter away their hard-earned dollars in casinos and bars. It is certainly not for everyone. But if you have mental fortitude and a plan for managing your finances wisely, then a few months or years in northern Alberta might just give you the means to fast-track your ambitions, whatever they may be. I know that for the experiences and the adventures alone, going to Fort McMurray was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I have written this guide honestly and to the best of my abilities. I won’t sugarcoat any of the ugly parts. I do not gain anything from your going to Alberta, and I am not currently in the pay of any oil companies, nor do I ever expect to be again. I don’t claim any responsibility for what you do with this information.
I hope you find this guide useful. If you have any questions, comments or criticism post them below or contact me directly.