Oilsands tour an eye-opener for local teacher
Bellerose teacher to become his school's hub for information
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Jul 25, 2012 06:00 am
Bill Turnham has talked with his students a lot about the oilsands over the years. But other than a vague mental image of oil rigs and dirty conditions, he didn’t know much about the industry, he says.
That all changed earlier this month when he took a weeklong tour of the oilsands region.“We can say we’ve seen pictures,” he says, “but to stand next to a 400-tonne haul-truck is something else.”
Turnham, who is the work experience co-ordinator at Bellerose Composite High School, was part of an all-expenses paid tour of the oilsands region organized by Inside Education, an Alberta-based charity that tries to teach teachers about natural resources and the environment.
Turnham says he will continue to recommend oilsands jobs to his students, but his visit to the region has given him a broader perspective on those jobs and the industry as a whole.
“I’m going to give them a thumbs up, but I’m going to give them a thumbs-up with options,” he said.
Big business, big impact
Although Inside Education has run oilsands tours before, this was the first to feature teachers from all across Canada, said program manager Kathryn Wagner.
The oilsands are a topic of interest across Canada, Wagner says, but few get the chance to see them first-hand. This tour, which had teachers tour facilities and meet government, industry, municipal, aboriginal and non-governmental representatives, was meant to give teachers a balanced look at the region to help them encourage critical thinking in their students.
The 40 participating teachers were picked from amongst about 180 applicants and teach everything from science to social studies, Wagner said.
The teachers spent three days in around Edmonton and four in Fort McMurray, touring the Syncrude, Statoil and Devon oilsands sites and meeting with residents of the Fort McKay First Nation.
Turnham says his first impression when he flew into the oilsands region on July 9 was that of a barren landscape.
“I was a little shocked to see how much of that boreal forest had been stripped away,” he said.
While companies do have to restore these regions when they’re done with them, he continued, he was stunned to learn that this restoration didn’t exactly return them to their once picturesque state.
“Any of this reclamation is truly a 20- to 40-year process,” he said. “What you see after it’s all done and they put the overburden back still looks like a barren landscape, but the growth will return.”
The job picture was much more complex than he thought, he continued. There were far fewer traditional oil rigs than he believed, for example, and far more jobs in the environmental field. Most of the industry was also moving away from open-pit mines and into in-situ development, which is entirely different.
The work camp where the teachers stayed was surprisingly luxurious, Turnham said, featuring a gym, sauna and a five-star cafeteria.
“They probably have the only free Starbucks in North America,” he said.
Living conditions were tight, however, especially in Fort McMurray, where what’s considered a $300,000 home in St. Albert runs for about $750,000.
Fort McKay elders told the teachers about their concerns with development’s effects on the environment, Turnham said, but seemed resigned to the fact that it would happen.
“The perception I got was, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Local governments and industry seemed to work closely together to preserve certain areas while giving up others.
Turnham says he hopes to act as a hub for oilsands information at Bellerose this fall, passing on his experience to teachers and students.
It’s Albertans, not corporations, who control this resource, Turnham said, and we need to understand it in order to have a say in its use.
“We have it, it’s there, and if we don’t fully understand the processes behind it … we may be, in essence, giving it away.”