#aptnpipelines: Boom and Bust, Cold Lake First Nation’s delicate relationship with oil

Chris Stewart
APTN National News
The community of Cold Lake in Alberta is slowly getting back to normal after the collapse of oil prices in 2014.

What makes the community 278 kilometres northeast of Edmonton unique is that it sits on 44 billion barrels of bitumen, second only to Fort McMurray in size.

When the price of a barrel of oil was close to $100 U.S. in 2013, life was good for the small town and the nearby Cold Lake First Nations.

Six figure incomes, nice house, and vacations.

Craig Russell worked 15 years in the industry – then the price of oil plummeted.

“Well I did 10 years on the service rigs,” said Russell. “I operated heavy oil and gas for about five years. In the fall of 2014, I got laid off. Had to jump on the service rigs again. Got laid off. Now at the age of 33, I am retraining to be a scaffolder.”

As a scaffolder, he is making almost $70,000 less per year than he was in the oil industry.

He said he is happy to still be able to provide for his family, and he is not alone.

“All of my friends actually, with the exception of one guy, we’ve all had to take drastic pay cuts with the downturn in oil prices. We are still employed. Still taking care of our families. It’s part of life. No one said life was easy. We are making it work here,” he said.

Jon Blackman is 33 as well. He has spent 17 years in the oil industry.

He started work right out of high school.

“When I was younger we grew up without money,” said Blackman. “I keep thinking about that every once in a while. Especially when I see someone and say when we were kids we would wish for this and this…Now I don’t have to. I can do whatever, whenever.”

Blackman said the oil and gas industry has given him the freedom and money to pursue his passions. He plans to open a scuba diving instruction company in Belize. He can fly to Vancouver to watch hockey – and wants to retire by the age of 50.

He said the money is so good, his father, a former Chief of the Buffalo River Dene Nation in Saskatchewan is now working in the industry.

“My Dad just recently started working in the oil industry a few years ago. After being Chief and Council for so long. He retired from that. Now he’s in the oilfield.”

He laughed and said he taught his Dad how to be a pipeliner.

While there have certainly been economic gains for the local people and community, there has also been some problems.

There have been five locations in the Cold Lake area where bitumen has leaked to the surface, including the lake.

The first spill was in 2009. Canadian Natural Resources (CNR) used a system similar to fracking. The company injected the ground with pressurized steam 300 degrees C to melt the solid bitumen.

According to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), CNR used too high of a pressure causing the earth to fracture and the liquid bitumen coming to the surface accidently. According to the company, the cleanup finished last year. The AER said small amounts may still leak in the future.

One and a half million litres of bitumen has been spilled and hundreds of animals and birds have died since.

Craig Russell is hopeful that the spills are a thing of the past.

“Here in Canada, we have some of the highest, most regulated, ethical oil in the world. Right now, we need energy. And to meet those energy demands, where else would you go for oil?”

APTN contacted the Cold Lake First Nation leadership for a comment on the pros and cons of investing in the oil industry. They referred us to one of its companies, Primco Dene – President James Blackman did not make himself available for an interview.

Russell is thankful for his years in the oil industry.

“It does have its ups and downs, peaks and valleys. But if you can ride those out and manage your money well, it’s a great career to pursue, working in the oil and gas industry.”

Oil prices are headed back up. From a low of $16/barrel in 2016, to $40 today. At that price, some ventures start becoming profitable. Maybe the flow of jobs will start once again.

[email protected]

Contribute Button