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The Hardisty B expansion is currently under construction at TransCanada Pipelines Tank Farm in Hardisty Alberta, December 18, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
The Hardisty B expansion is currently under construction at TransCanada Pipelines Tank Farm in Hardisty Alberta, December 18, 2012. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Residents of rural Hardisty, Alberta skeptical oil wealth will spill on them Add to ...

This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.

Steering his SUV down a remote, two-rut path, Bryan Templeton glances over to snow-covered fields with a smile. “You wouldn’t even know we’ll have a thriving oil facility here some day,” he says. “But you will shortly.”

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Mr. Templeton is the site manager near tiny Hardisty, Alta., for TransCanada Pipelines, the company behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. And they are already building.

Three massive oil tanks are under construction, rising up from a valley at the end of the snowy road. When commissioned in the summer – one of a series of projects on tap around Hardisty in 2013 – this tank trio will hold over a million barrels of oil.

It will also be the start of Keystone XL, if it is approved.

“Everything starts here,” says Mr. Templeton, whose company is waiting for the U.S. State Department to give the project the green light – but has started building the tanks anyhow. “As tank farms grow, and these facilities grow, the batches [of oil] tend to get bigger, so you need bigger tanks.”

The new tanks join three existing ones serving TransCanada’s original Keystone pipeline. These six are clustered with 80 more that are already built, are in construction or being planned by several companies in this so-called tank farm east of Hardisty, an unassuming energy hub of pipelines and storage here in east-central Alberta, 600 kilometres south of the oil sands in Fort McMurray.

But while Hardisty and the tank farm are minutes apart, they seem like different worlds. Hardisty, with about 700 residents, is like so many small towns across Canada – simply holding on while its young people move away and the economy stagnates.

Many buildings are empty along the main drag; some businesses that have survived are for sale. And people are growing weary of promise after promise that oil wealth will breathe life into town. They support the pipeline, but don’t see it as a silver bullet, because they’ve never seen the windfall.

“Everybody’s anticipating, but I’ve yet to see it,” says Bonnie Whidden, 60, who owns the Country Inspirations antique store along Hardisty’s main street. It is for sale. She is skeptical about what impact the looming building boom will have on Hardisty. “It could grow, it might not. Who knows – 2013 is the year that it’s supposed to explode.”

Ms. Whidden suspects that, instead, the face of her small town will continue to transform to serve the transient work force; most of the jobs created at the tank farm are during construction, and are not permanent. The tank farm itself is almost entirely across a municipal boundary, yielding little tax revenue to Hardisty and its district. Ms. Whidden has turned to coupons and extended store hours to woo tank farm workers, but most, she says, shop in their hometowns and just work near Hardisty.

“These are rural communities, and they’re all going down the tube,” Ms. Whidden laments. “You know what it’s going to be? Restaurants, liquor stores, bars and hotels. That’s all.”

Hardisty is a boom-and-bust town that popped up a century ago during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The tank farm began in 1949 and has grown slowly since then. The tanks serve the spider’s web of pipelines that start here or pass through – if a pipeline shuts down, tanks are needed to store oil until a restart. But the growth hasn’t helped the town.

“I remember Peter Lougheed sitting in our school gym in 1974, saying we were going to be the next Fort McMurray.… We’ve heard our share of ‘this is going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread,’” says Brian Harrison, 51, whose family opened Hardisty’s local hardware store in 1967. It is also for sale.

“When you travel around, people say, ‘Oh, Hardisty, that’s really going to take off.’ Well, maybe in my lifetime, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Oil development is the lifeblood of the economy in eastern Alberta, which has some of the province’s lowest unemployment rates. Oil, gas and pipelines account for 96 per cent of all capital projects planned in the surrounding Eastern Alberta Trade Corridor. But its impact is more a construction boom than an oil boom.

“Hardisty, in the past, has certainly experienced those high-highs during construction, then it tails off,” says Bud James, chair of the area’s Battle River Alliance for Economic Development. He expects Keystone XL to be approved, but says there are other projects scheduled to drive the economy. “It’s not like it’s the end of the world if it’s not approved.”

Mr. James’s group hopes to lure families to live and work around Hardisty and surrounding towns, but there is a shortage of large homes in the region. “I think that’s where the opportunity is for us – to promote quality of life,” he said. “There’s a real understanding that what’s a benefit to Hardisty is a benefit to east-central Alberta.”

But in Hardisty, the direct benefits are few. Even if Keystone XL goes forward, there’s little hope of long-term gain here – just a short flurry of worker activity in 2013.

“They come in, they pay rent, they eat, they buy stuff and then they leave,” says Sheila Baumgartner, 26, a manager at Hardisty’s sports bar, The Leaf. She was born and raised in town and, like so many here, supports the pipeline. But she doubts what impact it will have, long-term. “We’re so used to having people come and go. Some stay. And some go.”

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