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Success, sex, and morality in the tar sands

A glimpse of what life is like for a certified electrician who is one of three women among 500 employees working on a site in the tar sands.

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Jennifer Elder: Photos by zackembree.com

Jennifer Elder, a 27-year old Victoria native with cornflower blue eyes, loves her work in Canada's tar sands. A certified electrician, Elder is one of three women among 500 employees working on a site two hours away from Fort McMurray.

Only 115 pounds "when soaking wet", Elder has learned to hold her own by wielding a mixture of humour, diplomacy, and a can-do attitude among some of the toughest guys in Alberta. If there's something heavy to lift, Elder goes for it and the guys respect her.

"They're my bros," she says.

Despite extremities in weather, location, and gender imbalance, the delicate-looking Elder says she wakes up every morning and can't wait to go to work.

She relishes the intellectual challenge of analyzing plans and figuring out how the job must be done. She welcomes the challenge of lifting heavy weight and pulling the cables, and can't get enough of working outside; even in the summer when, as some joke, the mosquitoes are as big as cows.

Elder is one of approximately 22,340 workers directly employed in the oil sands, according to the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada in 2012. Like Elder, many of these Canadians left behind sluggish job prospects at home to work up north in what has been called "the world's largest industrial project" and, by climate activist Bill McKibben, "the fuse to the carbon bomb."

Jennifer Elder embodies the promise and prosperity of Canada's oil reserves, an environment where hard work leads to high pay and where reliability and skill are rewarded with more responsibility and praise.

Although a 2012 University of Calgary study found that Canadians rank the oil industry at the bottom of a list of trustworthy industries, alongside lawyers and used car salesmen, Elder is quick to point out that not everyone has the luxury of being choosey, or refusing the opportunity available in a multi-billion dollar industry that can't hire enough workers fast enough.

She says her co-workers may not agree with Canada's energy policy and may wish for "greener" jobs, but they choose work in the oil sands over life on welfare back home.

What it's like for a young woman in the oil sands

Right after Elder received her electrician certification in Victoria, the economy went bad. She tried to find work for about eight months, with no luck. A friend's dad had a trade workers' company in Fort McMurray. He needed some electricians and asked her to come up. 

"I didn't even know what the oil sands were. I just thought I was going to be doing regular commercial work. I didn't know it got freezing. I didn't know it got down to minus 45 degrees Celsius."

She found out fast, she said, laughing during a recent interview on a balmy summer day in Vancouver.

"We've had to go up in the air when it was 50 below with the wind blowing. It gets cold. You're wearing so many layers of clothing that just doing a small task takes 10 minutes. When it gets to a certain temperature, you work 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off. It gets pretty intense, particularly up at 40 to 108 feet in the air."

The work involves "laying the wire for motors, drillers, steam generators, oil treatment buildings, motor control stations. The crew pulls it for all the small gadgets, float transmitters, everything that measures the oil in the tanks or the pipes, limit transmitters."

Her last project involved building new infrastructure for a Canadian company that then went into the U.S. They engineer a lot of equipment. They also build. They have a place where they build the flare stacks.

"We manufacture a lot of the equipment the oil sands need. The MCC is the motor control centre where all of our power is fed from. They'll build that and then ship it up. Ninety-nine per cent of the infrastructure gets to the oil sands by semi-trucks. We manufacture in Nisku, Alberta and then ship it about four-five hour drive to oil sands."

(16) Comments

PWR July 10th 2013 | 10:10 AM

An electrician could just as easily work in servicing, for example, wind or solar farms, especially if they joined the voices to shut down the tar sands. We all need to force the gov't to change policies towards renewable energy and their subsidizing Big Oil, else they'll just point to the tar sands and say "good for the economy and jobs". I know that many other places in Canada are desperate to fill skilled trade jobs now because most have gone for the higher pay of the tar sands. Yes, it IS a moral issue when people choose greed over a safe future for our children. It IS a moral issue when what you do increases the chances for weather disasters, island nations disappearing due to sea level rise, species going extinct, increase in the spread of disease, etc.

JPierre July 10th 2013 | 12:12 PM

"Any job beats freeloading off the taxpayers." A job that is not in the best interests of your country is, in effect, freeloading off the taxpayers. Because they are going to have to pay to fix whatever problems your job causes your country." Alison Irvin

juechi July 10th 2013 | 12:12 PM

Please keep the comments respectful and not personal out of consideration for the interviewee, who agreed to take time to share her experiences about her work. Any disrespectful comments will be deleted. 

Susan Eyre July 10th 2013 | 1:13 PM

Dear talented hard-working electrician , your earnings will condem your children and grandchildren to a dying planet. Please don't make children. Have your riches and enjoy it, but realize that your earnings and ambition are condeming the entire planet to planetary disaster -look at what is happening now with the weather and amplify it weekly. This is your legacy to the future of life on this planet.

 If the tar-sand workers, decided to create and support the new healthy economy, the government and economy of Canada would be forced to help slow down the disaster that is coming.

Oh well, doesn't cut it. Wish you were serving the greater good with your dedication and thanks for your interview.

nnoxks July 10th 2013 | 2:14 PM

Mind the 2x4 in your own eyes before you point out the mote in another's.  The problem is a little closer to home than "the government" and Big Oil.  Who voted the government into power?  Who's buying what Big Oil is selling?  When's the last time you filled up your gas tank?  Yesterday?  Last week?  Then maybe you should come down off those high horses.  Honestly, moaning about how "the government" should do something about "Big Oil" is intolerable ignorance.  If the citizenry stopped using the stuff, the problem would disappear.  But we like our cars.  We like our flat screen TVs and shopping malls and flying to Hawaii.  What you all are really saying is we want to continue living exactly the same lifestyle as we do now, but without oil, coal, or gas.  Well, right here, right now, that is fantasy, not reality.  It's high time we began to consider our situation with a bit more realism.  

sandcanyongal1 July 10th 2013 | 6:18 PM

Tar sands, industrial wind farms - same difference. Both should be banished from the planet. What are our government smoking that they sign off on such garbage. If anyone thinks tar sands, wind and solar farms are so great sign a contract to live near any one of them for the next 50 years. Drink the local water, listen to the swoosh swoosh of the turbines - oops it's not a swoosh but sounds like living next door to an international airport or impending tsunami coming over the hill or the sound of a train on the tracks coming into through double paned windows for weeks at a time. You can also enjoy the lack of birds and wildlife because there won't be any to bother you. The birds will be chopped into little chorizos along with the bats. All you'll need to deal with are all the bug that the bats used to devour. How about moving out to the Mojave desert were the industrial solar plant suck the last drops of water out of the stressed aquifers and your kids can play with the endangered mojave desert tortoise shells, minus the tortoises.

Darby July 10th 2013 | 6:18 PM

 All these people complaining and crying for the oil sands to be stopped, shut down, decreased. They often speak of morals and climate change, greed and corruption. They view tar sand workers as one big bully, exploiting our future, the eviroment and every man, women, and child, but I wonder. Do these people ever ask, 'what if'? For example, 'What if' the oil sands disappeared one day, then what?  How about we all ask ourselves 'what if'. 'What if' we lost all present mode of transportation? 'What if' Heaven forbid you complaining people should ever be in need of emergency services? Those precious first few minutes would now become precious first few hours, because paramedics can only travel so fast on a self powered mountain bikes. I Dont even want to ask 'what if' your house caught fire? because I would imagine it would take a fire fighter even longer than the paramedic, because the fire fighter would have to try not to spill the water in the wooden bucket he has to carry, while riding a mountain bike, to your burning home. 'What if' electricity and gas were no longer an issue? 'what if' you couldnt, heat your home in -40 weather? Wood? Coal? 'What if' you had to harvest wood or coal? Wouldn't harvesting wood or coal be just as bad for the environment as the oil sands? 'What if' we had no means to treat our drinking water? 'What if' we had to quench our thirst? Drink salt water from the ocean? Because without water treatment plants our rivers and streams would run dry real quick. 'What if' we couldnt educate our children? 'What if' we had no lighting to study under. 'What if we had no text books to illistrate and learn from? 'What if' we had to row a boat to get from one island to another? 'What if' we had to get nourishment to undernourished countries? 'What if' we couldnt get food and medical supplies to these starving nations that relied on these supplies to survive? 'What if' manifacturing came to a stand still? 'What if' hospitality and services came to a stand still? transportation, logistics, and retail, 'what if'? 'What if' all the industries we know of, now became instinct? 'What if' billions and billions of people across this fine globe suddenly became unemployed? Then what? 'What if' the universe around us had never been studied or even discovered? 'What if' disease could not be researched, and cures discovered? 'What if' no one ever asked 'what if'? Just saying, 'what if'.

opit July 10th 2013 | 9:21 PM

I'll add another side.

There are those who do not believe just because a noise is made about co2 being responsible for warming the planet past desirable levels that it is necessarily the case. I am one of many who note lack of search results contrary to supposed 'consensus' is not the same thing as a solid understanding of all the processes of nature and the ability to measure and project outcomes. You can even find where weathermen - meteorologists were so vocal in their skepticism that there was a movement to shut them up ! Or where scientists were muzzled when they did not bow down to the supposed wisdom of 'climate modelers'. Grist even has lists of Talking Points which supposedly debunk skeptics. Guess what. That 'denies' the operation of Scientific Method and proposes to replace it with Authority. That is why the snarky comments about the Church of Global Warming...except it isn't snark when one is supposed to accept without question. One funny thought comes to mind : does it take the Church questioning the proposition that man's wisdom approaches the levels of divinity  before people start to 'get it' ? The emperor has no clothes.

But the kids at Fort Chipewyan have had a website noting deaths of parents from cancer for years. Their water source is downstream from Fort MacMurray. There are other costs possible than 'The Earth Will Fry.'  

Nor are comments about wind farms ill founded.  There are movements against them. Nor do investors seem to realize their projected 20 year service life does not conform to experience. 7 - 8 years in gearboxes are overstressed and fire is likely.

Workers need options. They will do what they must to survive their lack.

 

imdenney July 11th 2013 | 1:13 PM

This comment typifies the perspective of someone on the outside of a situation and possibly a hypocrite. Perhaps as a “green” insider I can offer a perspective that is based in fact and reality. Simply disputing Oil and the fact that Renewables are the answer is not an educated perspective. Has this person reduced or managed their consumption of Hydrocarbons in their lifetime..? I suspect that they don't understand that the modern world and all its conveniences are directly associated to the production /consumption and use of Oil/Nat gas. The productivity and efficiency in the use of oil provides the benefits, the world over, and our consumption includes this computer and the likely power to operate it. Renewable energy is not a "golden solution" in fact most areas must blend their mix of renewable with a hydrocarbon source (electric power). Perhaps large hydro-electric projects are more to their liking, destroying micro climates, fish futures, forests, and animal corridors (Columbia River with 1000 KM of barriers). An alternate example, waste and recycling from lithium batteries cost 3 times the cost to produce the original battery, with toxic byproducts.

Germany pays solar equipped households 40cent per KW/hr when the going rate is 7 cents…… not too sustainable in the medium term…. And the system falls back to hydrocarbons when the sun does not shine….!

I would ask that each person reading this discussion ask themselves what habits and choices would have to be made to actually be able stand up ethically and say that they do not use or require Oil or Hydrocarbons. Perhaps I will see them when I am camping in bush this summer, with Carbon based "Fire" and water to drink.

Watch the documentary SpOiled, http://www.spoiledthemovie.com/ for a balanced perspective. Oil as a “green” solution, thought provoking for certain.

I would like to know of the government subsidy that this contributor notes….. I would like to apply for it and produce more oil!!


PWR wrote:
<p>An electrician could just as easily work in servicing, for example, wind or solar farms, especially if they joined the voices to shut down the tar sands. We all need to force the gov't to change policies towards renewable energy and their subsidizing Big Oil, else they'll just point to the tar sands and say "good for the economy and jobs". I know that many other places in Canada are desperate to fill skilled trade jobs now because most have gone for the higher pay of the tar sands. Yes, it IS a moral issue when people choose greed over a safe future for our children. It IS a moral issue when what you do increases the chances for weather disasters, island nations disappearing due to sea level rise, species going extinct, increase in the spread of disease, etc.</p>

J.D. July 11th 2013 | 9:21 PM

Since the workers up there are getting paid so much I think they should put some of their money into investing in renewable energy. When I visited Fort McMurray I heard that a lot of the young guys coming in would blow their paycheques on big 'toys' like boats and skidoos which then tied them into debt where they could not leave their tar jobs without risking bankrupcy.

Eenie July 15th 2013 | 5:17 PM

Re: PWR

Wind and solar are not the magic replacement for oil you seem to think. Wind power only works when the wind is blowing. Solar only works when the sun is shining. Unfortunately, those are not guaranteed to be the times when people are most in need of power. Oil, coal, and (sometimes) hydro, we can control; wind and solar we can't. To be able to make wind and solar practical as primary energy sources, you need battery technology a hundred times better than what we currently have. Our existing batteries can't get a car from one side of a province to another. Do you really think you can run an entire country off them?


You want to get rid of the oil sands? Invest in other industries in Alberta. Provinces traditionally control natural resources, which means if you want the oil sands gone, we need to provide a comparably beneficial alternative for the people making the relevant decisions, i.e. the Alberta government. In particular, you should invest in research into practical and efficient power-storage technology. You'll also need to find other sources for all the petroleum products you use everyday: plastics, asphalt, waxes and lubricants, some medications, etc. the plastic problem is reduced somewhat by recycling, but recycling is not 100%, and that's only one of the many products you'd have to replace.


Can't invest in all that yourself? Of course not. But given you're already lobbying people in a way that doesn't work (telling them to fix things with magic) you may as well continue your lobbying, but in a more practical and directed fashion, by advocatng that others, with more resources, or even many others with few resources, invest accordingly. Those suggestions are based on my research and reading of the situation, but feel free to do your own. Try to leave your self-righteousness out of it, and focus on concrete steps that a) screw over as few people as possible (to keep public opinion on your side) and b) make the 'green' choice OBJECTIVELY worth pursuing for an individual company - i.e. profitable. If not as profitable as oil, then at least close enough that a reasonably large company can give its shareholders a good return on it, and still have money leftover to lobby the government. I don't understand Environmental activists who seem to believe that the oilsands exist just to tick them off. They are there for a reason: they provide real benefit to the companies, the workers, the consumers, and the government, not necessarily in that order. If you want them gone, you have to replace them, with something almost as good or better.

mary gordon July 15th 2013 | 5:17 PM

the tar sands could not exist without workers. so as workers they have the responsibility (and that is an ethical and moral responsibility I am talking about) to examine their own part in making the machine roll on.

the tar sands are proven to be the biggest threat to life on this planet, check it out with almost every climate scientist, those not paid by big oil, and there's not many of them left either.

each individual is responsible for their role and will have to answer for it at least to their children and future generations

 

I wish this young woman well, and I fully understand the need for money to survive (I have friends who work in the sands) but I don't respect them. 

Also to say there is a choice between tar sands and welfare is misleading in the extreme. Firstly, welfare costs tax payers about 8 dollars a year including the disabled, and if it were raised to a reasonable rate, ie/ the poverty line, it would cost about 20 dollars the price of a movie minus the popcorn. that's an important point. the shaming arouind welfare if Calvanist. People on welfare are not leeches on the system. We need to look above to the higher classes to see the real leeches. Many of them own stakes in the tar sands.

There may not be many jobs, but the tar sands are part of the reason. Governments know full well that all the science is there to create renewable and green energy for all in a myriad of ways, and it is not used for one reason only, profit for the uber wealthy.

I always respect the worker, but in this case, it is very hard for me to condone the youth who work in the tar sands male or female. Time better spent could be fighting against them, the blockaders need welders too. 

There is far more to life than money, and there are other ways to make money though it may be getting more difficult. I do know welders who do NOT work there.

I wish this woman all the best, but like all workers in the sands I would beg them to consider what they are actually participating in. It is murder. Of this planet, and of people living downstream. 

 

Paper Chase July 16th 2013 | 7:07 AM

The world has been sliced up in such a way that countries specialize in certain industries and not others. Manufacturing disappeared to other destinations so that our economy is reliant on oil. Locally, people don't have a choice if they want to work. And this work is not for everyone, only the very fit.

 

Lolapod July 17th 2013 | 2:14 PM

It is so important to hear the worker's side of the story, because this is where the true evil of mankind lies - "When good men [and women] stand by and do nothing" . This is how we have brought climate change about in the first place. We think that we don't matter - we are too small a cog in the machine - we are "just trying to make a living". This is the real face of greed - it is bright-eyed hopeful and talented young men and women. Let us not forget that it is always people who make up corporations. People in groups behave much differently than individuals would - witness 'the Bystander Effect' where people stand idly by while someone is hurt or killed. Let us continue to behave as individuals and have the courage to use our hearts and minds to change what we can. And we can change our collective future - together.

John Taylor November 7th 2013 | 2:14 PM

Excellent article. Good to read about the personal aspect. I wonder how many ecofreaks could tolerate the conditions Jennifer works in.

Nice to sit comfy and warm, plunk on the 'puter before heading to Starbucks to suck up latte's and change the world with like minded (unemployed?) people.

"If you ain't bin there, you don't know!"

While you may not agree with what she does, She has the balls to do it. 

Besides complaining, what do you do?

Good luck Jennifer.

 

 

Nadine price February 6th 2014 | 11:11 AM

great article. Hardly makes me feel any better as I have been applying for work in the oil sands for 4 years now without any luck. I have worked in the industrial field my whole life plus have taken my first year in warehousing and still can't get a job!!! I have all the qualities for this place and yet what a let down!!