My father was born and raised in a mining village that has completely disappeared. The only remaining clues to its existence on banks of the Clyde River just outside of Glasgow is a memorial cairn and a tiny arched Roman bridge that’s still solid after nearly two millennia. Bothwellhaugh was a company town with an 80 year run. A coal mine was sunk in 1884 but was tapped out by the 1950s just when my father came of age. By 1965, it was completely demolished. It’s disappearance precluded and possibly foreshadowed the well known dismantling of the British coal mining industry in the 1980s. Those who remained when the wrecking ball came were moved up the road into council houses to live out their years. There are no known surviving miners and their children are mostly seniors now or have passed on. Unless you stopped by the cairn and read their story in what is now the scenic Strathclyde Park, you would have no idea that a village of 1200 people once stood there.
It will be far more difficult to conceal the evidence of industrial activity when the tar sands in Alberta are tapped out. Resource extraction has come a long way from the pick and shovel How Green Was My Valley days but the end result is the same. Industries have scaled up the assault on the land for fuel. Mountains are blown away in Appalachia to scrape out every last ounce of coal, leaving shitpiles of spoil, with not a tree or animal to be seen. Squeezing bitumen to get the oil out takes a heap of energy and the residual goo is collected into ponds to “settle”. It’s tough to reclaim a landscape with so few original characteristics left. Due to the tanking of the world oil price, It would seem the glory days of Canada’s bitumen boom may be drawing to a close, with a lifespan shorter than my father’s ghost town.
It’s always difficult for those of us who advocate for working people to square all of this with an environmental sensibility. The contradiction is glaring but you can’t just dismiss a fellow worker trying to exist like everyone else simply because of the industry they work for. These aren’t evil people. They didn’t create the system. Every one of them was sold the usual bill of goods; big bucks, good times, prosperity for the family. Yet once again the door is closing fast as it has so many times before. This is the free market working exactly as it should, a collapse is continuously looming.. Stability yields to uncertainty in a heartbeat and there will be casualties. It has never been any different.
China based CNOCC energy bought Nexen Inc in 2013 for 15.1 billion dollars and a rail tanker full of high hopes. Before that year was out, it was clear that this purchase was becoming a liability to the bottom line. The pledge to the Canadian government when CNOCC took over was that there would be “no reduction in manpower”. Fast forward to this past week when it was announced that they were doing just that by cutting 340 jobs, mostly from the offices in Calgary. Once any large industrial concern realizes that breaking their promise will be met with a collective shrug from the government and no repercussions, they’ll do it again. And again. You’re done, get out.
Nearly 200 kilometers to the north of Fort McMurray, 25 workers were stranded for days after the contractor they were working for went into receivership. The larger company that the workers were contracted out to refused to pick up the tab to extract them. In Calgary, the contractor’s offices were emptied out and all inquiries went to voice mail. It’s not known whether the message was “Your call is important to us.” A deal was eventually struck to get them back to Fort McMurray but from there they had to make their own way back to where they came from. No more jetsetting across the land for thousands of kilometers like a high roller, on some of the longest commutes the world has ever seen. The refrain is the same – you’re done, get out.
Within a day or two, 1000 tradespeople working for a different contractor on Husky Energy’s Sunrise project had notices slipped under their door early in the morning that they were terminated and must “demobilize” immediately. These workers were represented by the Christian Labour Association of Canada, a growing quasi union whose point of pride is their bromance with management. Their rep said he had “no idea” as to why the job ended so suddenly. I wouldn’t have much faith in a union rep whose analysis of the situation is “I may find out or I might never know” as to why they were told to get lost. One worker reported he wasn’t even allowed to fetch his personal tools and gear from the job site. You won’t need those in your unemployment son – you’re done, get out.
All of this took place over the course of a week. The break even production price varies between projects but many of them operate well above the price per barrel, which is around $45 as of this writing. The world seems to be awash in an oversupply and no one knows how low the price can go. As that drops, so does the need for workers. Will there be any evidence left from those that slugged it out in this gritty remote Shangri-La? A forlorn toolbox sticking out of the muck left behind in haste? An abandoned work trailer full of pink slips? History may soon forget the ghosts of the Athabasca.