Local politicians in Fort McMurray have voted to impose a moratorium on nearby work camps that have come to define life in Alberta’s oil sands.
Councillors with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, a sprawling area in Northern Alberta that includes Fort McMurray and dozens of oil sands facilities, voted this week on a motion to prohibit new work camps and deny renewals for existing camps within 75 kilometres of the urban centre. Municipal staff will draft a bylaw, which will return to council for public hearings and a vote in the coming months.
The proposal became a flashpoint in a region where the economy is inextricably linked to the oil sands but where local leaders have complained that the industry employs tens of thousands of workers who have no real connection to the community. Petroleum producers warned councillors that a moratorium would hurt an industry that is already struggling because of low oil prices.
Mayor Don Scott, who was elected in 2017 on a promise to reduce the region’s reliance on fly-in-fly-out workers, initially proposed a moratorium within a 120-km radius.
He said keeping workers isolated in camps means they are not spending money at local businesses or participating in the housing market, which has seen increasing vacancy and tumbling prices in the past year.
"It was becoming a situation where people were working in our region, taking their paycheque, and leaving and having no connection to the region,” he said in an interview.
“If you’re going to live within 75 kilometres [of Fort McMurray], come live with us and see what an amazing region this is.”
The policy, if passed in its current form, would ban new work camps and deny renewals for existing camps, some of which will see their current permits expire in 2022. The municipality estimates as many as 61 camps that employ more than 27,000 people are located within 75 km of Fort McMurray.
This week’s motion carves out exemptions for maintenance camps, shutdowns and sites that are inaccessible by road.
Mr. Scott said the camps would be phased out over the next several years.
“This is going to be a huge reset, and it’s going to take time,” he said.
Several oil sands producers including Suncor and Imperial Oil sent officials to council meetings earlier this month to oppose the motion.
Tracey Wolsey, Suncor’s director of Indigenous and community relations for Wood Buffalo, said the company already has 5,000 employees who live and work in Fort McMurray, but for many of its workers, it would be impractical to have them away from production and exploration sites.
“We know that those workers are better served and we’re better served if they’re close to our operations," Ms. Wolsey said in an interview.
“We need to be flexible and quick with getting those people into place when we need them.”
Ms. Wolsey also said the policy poses safety risks if workers are required to travel long distances before starting a shift. While the council motion proposes a radius of 75 kilometres, driving to one of the company’s sites would take as long as two hours.
“We have 12-hour shifts at that site, and we need to get our people there fit for duty,” she said.
Karim Zariffa, executive director, Oil Sands Community Alliance, said the moratorium would have unintended consequences and could actually hurt employment in the region and in Fort McMurray.
He noted the camps collectively pay more than $14-million a year in municipal taxes and account for a significant proportion of air traffic through the region’s main airport.
“As far as we’re concerned, a moratorium on camps is essentially a moratorium on development,” Mr. Zariffa said.