Photo Essay

  • Highway 63 in North Alberta, Dec. 16, 2012. In the winter the road becomes entirely ice. It is called the "the highway of death" because the traffic is heavy and car crashes are deadly. On this road, approximately 150 miles north of Fort McMurray is Fort Chipewyan, one of the oldest communities in the area and home to native groups in North Alberta.
  • The Syncrude facilities, shown on Feb. 16, 2012, are just north of Fort McMurray. Bituminous sands is a non-conventional oil that is very difficult to extract and emits more greenhouse gases than conventional oil production.
  • Ray Ladouceur, a 70-year-old fisherman in Fort Chipewyan, uses his mother's house, a trailer, as a freezer for all the fish he catches with deformities. Over the years reports have surfaced about fish in the area having noticeable abnormalities.
  • A motel in Fort McMurray, Feb. 14, 2012. In the past few years, Fort McMurray's population has grown from some ten thousand people to over a hundred thousand. During the same period, part-time workers increased the size of the private “work camps," which is estimated to be more than 23,000 people.
  • Even though Fort McMurray has experienced large economic success due to the money the oil industry brings in, the city is having a hard time keeping up with the rapid growth. Many developmental issues have arisen, such as homelessness.
  • The Centre of Hope in Fort McMurray welcomes homeless individuals during the day from 8am to 6pm. In the multimedia interactive "Fort McMoney," Melissa Blake, major of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo where Fort McMurray is located, discusses the homeless population. She explains that many come to Fort McMurray because they heard that it was easy to find a job in the oil industry with a high income. Yet, they were not aware about the professional qualification requested, the hard working conditions, and the high cost of living, which has caused many to struggle.
  • Individuals inside the Centre of Hope, an organization that aims to help the homeless population of Fort McMurray, Feb. 17, 2012.
  • Downtown Fort McMurray, Dec. 15, 2012. 90% of the city's budget comes from the oil industry.
  • The Boomtown Casino has become a hub for many activities in the city, offering live entertainment in addition to its table games and slot machines.
Drug and alcohol use in Fort McMurray is common.
  • Trees in the distance obscure the view of an oil plant, Feb. 14, 2012. Fort McMurray sits in the center of the Wood Buffalo region of Alberta, Canada, which produces 1.7 million barrels of oil a day.
  • Marquisa Shore, a waitress, came to Fort McMurray for its high salaries. Yet, the cost of real estate is so extreme that she has no other option than living in a trailer that still costs $1,500 a month.
  • "Fort McMurray… I used to call it hell, now I called it Home," says Carl Valdock, left, to his friend Cuz, who both are can collectors in the city, Nov. 25, 2012.
  • About 18 miles north of Fort McMurray is the Black Sand Camp, a housing option for workers in the area. A room with a shared bathroom can cost between $200 and $250 a night.
  • A man at Black Sand Camp, workers housing, about 18 miles north of Fort McMurray, Nov. 26, 2012. Temporary workers come from all over the world and stay in these private "working camps." This young man had arrived recently and like most of the others he was motivated by the high income for oil sands workers, which is about $180,000 a year.
  • A woman sits in a common room at Black Sand Camp, Nov. 26, 2012. She is in charge of the dining room at the camp, where she provides information for new workers, collects suggestions on how to improve the dining space, and keeps a general eye over everything.
  • Fort McMurray has a large "ghost" population. No one is sure exactly how many residents there are since the workers population fluctuates as they come and go by private planes at night and during the day, summer or winter.
  • The Syncrude site, north of Fort McMurray, Feb. 14, 2012.
  • Syncrude's factory, seen Feb. 19, 2013, was one of the first in the region. It is one of the only factories you can see from Highway 63.
  • The outskirts of Black Sand Camp, Nov. 26, 2012.
  • A man is seen in a restaurant, Feb. 14, 2012, in Fort McMurray. Many have come from all over the world to "Fort Mac" for its black gold rush.
  • Dead trees stand in front of housing in Fort McMurray, Feb. 19, 2012.
  • Keyano College, Feb. 15, 2013. This school offers a range of post-secondary programs in addition to training for all of the jobs in the oil sands industry.
  • Bodybuilding contest at the Kaene Classic Club, Nov. 17, 2012. Many oil companies in the area have built facilities for residents. On the other side of town, the French company, Total, gave its name to a fitness-club, Syncrude built a swimming pool, Canadian Natural built an arena, Nexen, built a gym, and Shell will open a huge amusement park.
  • A flyer for a bodybuilding contest at the Kaene Classic Club left in a bathroom, Nov. 16, 2012.
  • Housing lots outside Fort McMurray, Nov. 25, 2012.
  • Fisherman Ray La Douceur, in Fort. Chipewyan, Dec. 17, 2012. La Douceur has been fighting against the oil industry for years.
  • Due to the high costs, trailer camps have become the cheapest option in Fort McMurray. They still cost $1,500 a month.
  • New houses being built, Nov. 21, 2012. Residential suburbs are sprouting up everywhere and soon high-rise buildings are going to appear in the center of town. In the outskirts, houses are sold on average for $1 million.
  • Fort Chipewyan, north of Fort McMurray, Dec. 17, 2012.
  • Doctor O'Connor, seen in Fort McMurray, Nov. 20, 2012. Dr. O'Connor first spoke out about the abnormal cancer rate in the Indian population and the potentially harmful side effects the tar sands could have on humans in the area many years ago.
  • Fort Chipewyan's cemetery, Dec. 18, 2012. Over the years the remote town that sits downstream of Fort McMurray has recorded a higher than normal cancer rate. It has been speculated that the rates could be a direct result of pollution from the oil sands activity.
  • Shell site, 30 miles north of Fort McMurray, Feb. 12, 2013.
Pictures from the web documentary Fort McMoney directed by David Dufresne
/

How Fort McMurray became an energy industry gold mine

Updated

Whether you see it as the key to energy independence or the next step toward environmental catastrophe, tar sands oil’s transformative power cannot be denied. And nowhere is that power felt with more bracing immediacy than in the shale oil boomtowns. 

Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada, is one such town. Once a sleepy rural village with a population of barely 2,500, “Fort Mac” now has 100,000 residents, many of whom work in the energy industry. The change began in 1967, when Suncor (then known as Sun Company of Canada) finished construction of its Fort McMurray oil sands plant. Since then, the town has practically lived and breathed black gold. 

Today, Alberta exports over one million barrels of oil per day to the United States, and the energy industry accounts for over one quarter of the province’s GDP. The Keystone oil pipeline, currently the subject of a heated political battle in the United States, is just one of many pipelines which shuttle those millions of barrels into the United States around the clock. Even if President Obama acquiesces to the demands of environmental activists and blocks the Keystone XL pipeline extension, the blow would barely dent U.S. reliance on Alberta’s rapidly expanding tar sands operation. Fort McMurray, which rests atop the fruitful Athabasca tar sands deposit, is at the center of the boom.

That operation has done wonders for Fort McMurray’s economy, but that’s not all it has done. Tar sands oil is an especially hazardous fossil fuel, producing an estimated 12% more emissions than regular crude oil. Alberta health officials have confirmed that the cancer rate near oil sands is higher than expected, but the vice president of Alberta Health Services says there is “no cause for alarm.” Fishers have repeatedly found deformed fish in Lake Athabasca, near the oil sands. 

Photojournalist Philippe Brault traveled to Fort McMurray to witness up close how the oil energy has reshaped nature and society there. His photographs document everyday life in the heart of an energy industry gold mine.

Brault’s photos are featured in the interactive web documentary, “Fort McMoney,” directed by David Dufresne and produced by Toxa, Arte, and the ONF (Canada). The multimedia series is an innovative part game part documentary where players step into the world of Fort McMurray.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography