In the waning days of summer, afternoon traffic in Oyen, Alta., moved slowly along Main Street, easing along the weathered asphalt, past the low brick facade of the town office, farm equipment dealer and a cafe promising fresh pie and hot coffee.
But as evening approached on a mid-September day, the activity picked up again. A stream of men — some with fresh faces and others with grey hair — began trickling into town, filling up a pub for wing night, stopping to grab some Chinese takeout or picking up groceries.
They’re only a fraction of the hundreds of workers who’ve arrived here recently, roughly doubling the town’s population to around 2,000.
Alberta hasn’t felt the heat of a boom in years.
But for the last few months, Oyen and its neighbours have been getting a taste of what, for some Albertans, may feel a bit like the good old days.
Roughly 850 workers — skilled trades, engineers and managers among them — have come to work on the Canadian leg of TC Energy Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline. By the end of October, there will be close to 1,000.
“It has been a tremendous boost for this community to have workers,” said Wanda Diakow, an economic development officer for the rural municipality. “It’s been a tremendous boost for our region.”
Alberta is a province in need of some boosting, with the unemployment rate pushing 12 per cent. However, the mini-boom in Oyen is underpinned by government investment.
The province is taking a gamble on this early construction of Keystone XL, given that U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said that he would kill the pipeline if he won the presidency.
As well, Keystone XL remains a controversial project that’s faced (and still faces) legal battles, environmental protests and celebrity scorn. It’s part of an industry undergoing intense examination, including from oil companies themselves.
Workers and money arrive
In the best-case scenario, the pipeline aims to be in service in 2023, which means the construction boost has a firm timeline. So people are making the most of the opportunity.
Workers are helping fill hotel rooms, RV parks and rental suites. Crews have raised over $15,000 for the food bank and other programs. The company paid over $200,000 to Oyen for waterline and roadway improvements.
We’ve seen this before, you know, and I think we take these things more to heart. We’re very, very fortunate.– Oyen Mayor Doug Jones
The pipeline is expected to provide more than $4 million in annual property taxes to the municipalities along the right of way in Alberta once it’s in service. Some work along the pipeline route will also continue for a while after it’s built.
That’s good news in this community where the oilpatch still feels like the home team, pipeliners are welcome and knowing this small boom has a shelf life, people seem to appreciate it all the more.
“We’ve seen this before, you know, and I think we take these things more to heart,” said Doug Jones, a retired farmer and the town’s longtime mayor. “We’re very, very fortunate.”
Located about 300 kilometres east of Calgary, Oyen doesn’t sit far from the Saskatchewan border. It straddles Highway 41, also known as the Buffalo Trail. The town’s website describes it as “Big Sky, Clean Air & Friendly People.”
Overlooking Main Street is the town’s clock tower, a metal-framed monument that commemorates the community’s founding more than a century ago. It’s a place built on agriculture but with ties to the oilpatch as well. When the downturn hit the industry about six years ago, it stung here, too.
Pipeliners arrived the previous decade to work on the original Keystone pipeline.
But people were uncertain of when, or if, they’d host work crews for Keystone XL after years of political and legal headwinds. The 1,947-kilometre pipeline would transport oil from Hardisty, Alta., to Steele City, Neb., and from there onto Gulf Coast refiners.
Workers finally began arriving over the summer to work on the 269-kilometre Alberta leg after the United Conservative Party government announced it would invest $1.1 billion US as equity and guarantee a $4.2-billion project loan in a bid to get things moving. Some have questioned the prudence of such a big bet on a single project, but the Kenney government has remained committed.
‘That’s huge for us’
As afternoon wound down, it was the end of a busy day at the Fountain Tire-NAPA Auto Parts store.
Dale Walker and Troy Maclean are the owners. In the last few months, the auto parts business has been up five per cent, and the tire business has climbed by as much as 10 per cent.
“That’s huge for us,” Walker said.
Business is good, and so is the rental market.
Rental properties in town are in demand, and some residents have opened their homes to workers and their families. Diakow estimated rentals are injecting roughly $75,000 Cdn a month into the region’s economy, not including hotels.
Resident Kari Kuzmiski has rented out a home to one worker.
“Lots of people are renting out bedrooms in their homes that never would do that,” Kuzmiski said. “It’s helping both, right? Helping [homeowners] with bills, yet helping Keystone out, too.”
Walk down the street from the tire shop, and you smell the aroma of Chinese food leading to the door of The 90’s Restaurant. But no one there had time to talk about business — they’re too busy meeting the appetite for takeout.
WATCH | Life in a boom town thanks to Keystone XL:
Another block on, and you’re at the Overtime — a brightly lit pub with sports on every TV, hockey and football logos on the walls, and the bar is decorated with metal plate.
Everyone walking in sanitizes their hands, and soon every physically distanced table is occupied for wing night. (TC Energy said Monday there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the work camp.)
Pub manager Charlene Carlson has lived in Oyen much of her life and is raising two kids. Beyond the financial lift, Carlson said, the pipeline has provided a bit of a morale boost as well.
“That’s the big thing with being proud to live here,” she said. “You come from a province that these people are so hardworking [and that] people come here to do that type of work.”
Over the course of the evening, more workers would come and go. Some talked about putting down roots. Carlson said they’re good people.
But she said her heart remains with the locals, who’ll be there long after the work on the pipeline is done. In the meantime, they’ll make the most of things.
Doug Dingman knows the ups and downs of the oilpatch. He’s lived it.
Dingman was among the thousands of Albertans who lost their oilpatch jobs in the wake of the global crude price collapse a few years ago.
He’s now the owner of the T&D Market Fresh Foods, just off Main Street. Dingman said business is up as much as seven per cent from last year.
Dingman continues to be a supporter of the energy sector, believing strongly that Alberta’s oil will be needed for a long while to come, while acknowledging the push for renewable energy.
It’s something you hear around the province these days, an acknowledgement of the changes in the energy industry and an eventual transition to things like renewables.
“I understand the changeover to new energies and stuff — eventually we have to go that route,” said Dingman. “But, for now, new energies are further out than they want it to be. So I think we still have to use fossil fuels until the proper changeovers are made.”
U.S. election could be key
There are many questions and challenges that lie ahead for the future of energy as the world seeks ways to address climate change. For Alberta’s oil industry, it seems the final fate of the Keystone XL pipeline is among the unknowns.
Though there’s an economic boost in Alberta right now, with construction jobs in places like Oyen, plenty of eyes will be on Washington, D.C, and the results of the next U.S. presidential election in November.
Donald Trump is a supporter. But rival Biden has said he’d cancel the Keystone XL pipeline permit if elected, though whether he’d make good on the pledge would have to be seen. It’s something workers here talk about, too.
Back at the Overtime pub, when asked for her thoughts on Alberta’s future, Carlson said that’s a discussion she’s had in her own home. She called herself a realist.
“I get that the world is changing, and we all have to adapt to that,” Carlson said. “The world now is a world that’s being built for my kids — and not so much us [older generations]. So we all have to change a little bit. But I hope it’s for the better. I hope we’re all successful.”
As for now, Carlson shared the wisdom of someone who has seen good times before.
“When you have it good, you should never take it for granted,” she said. “But that’s like with everything in life, especially living in Alberta.”