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Pace of Growth Slows: "Everyone is taking a deep breath"

A conversation with Brenda Erskine, Suncor's director of stakeholder and community relations, oil sands

The pace of growth in the oil sands industry over the past decade left Fort McMurray and surrounding communities in the Wood Buffalo region scrambling to keep up with increased demand for housing, hospitals, schools, roads and other public infrastructure. While the recent suspension of several oil sands growth projects has eased some of those pressures, industry, government and community officials alike are determined to use this “breathing room” to address ongoing infrastructure needs and prepare for when oil sands development returns to a growth footing.

Brenda Erskine has lived and worked in Fort McMurray for 28 years. She is Suncor's director of stakeholder and community relations, oil sands, and also serves as Chair of the Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation and Chair of the Oil Sands Development Group's housing committee. We asked Brenda for her perspective on the challenges her home community continues to face—and the role Suncor intends to play in helping resolve them.

With the recent slowdown in oil sands development, has the sense of urgency about infrastructure needs decreased?

ERSKINE: It has eased somewhat, but it doesn't mean that the need has gone away. I'm pleased to see the Government of Alberta continues to be committed to this community, and that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is continuing to plan for growth. I think everyone is taking a deep breath and seeing this as an opportunity to catch up.

What's Suncor's role in all this?

ERSKINE: We've been a very key player with the Oil Sands Developers Group (OSDG), formerly known as the Regional Issues Working Group. That organization has put a lot of effort into giving government the big picture concerning oil sands development and lobbying for increased funding and long-term planning. We've seen some really positive results. The Alberta government created the Oil Sands Secretariat, a pretty unique initiative that brings together five separate ministries to provide a coordinated response to the needs of this region. The government has also been much more proactive in releasing the Crown land needed for new housing projects and working to ensure all the associated infrastructure—schools, roads and so on—comes on stream when needed.

One of the specific things Suncor has done is the seconding of one of our senior employees, Heather Kennedy, who is currently serving a two-year term as assistant deputy minister in charge of the Oil Sands Secretariat. As Suncor's former vice president, human resources and communications for oil sands, and as a former industry president with the OSDG, Heather understands what makes both industry and this community tick and she's working with the government to address some really complex issues in the region.

Suncor seems to have put a particular emphasis on the housing challenge. Why is that?

ERSKINE: Housing is the kind of issue that has a ripple effect through the entire community. If teachers or nurses can't afford to live here, then that affects the quality of education and health care. If businesses can't afford to pay the wages people need to pay for their accommodations, then that affects their ability to recruit workers. We see this as a key priority, not only for ourselves, but for the community.

So how great is the demand?

ERSKINE: It's a bit fluid right now. The vacancy rate for rental accommodation for the last couple of years was basically zero and the price of an average house was more than $600,000. A year ago, the OSDG was saying we needed more than two thousand new housing units just to catch up with existing demand.

We may now have some breathing space. For example, this region's population has been growing at about eight percent per year for the past 10 years. Right now, we're projecting just two percent growth per year. But as oil sands projects come on line again, we could see growth ramping up to eight percent.

The government has released two major parcels of land, each with the capacity to provide housing for about 20,000 people. I'm serving on the Community Development Advisory Board for one of those parcels, the Parsons Creek Development. It's anticipated that this 1000-acre development has the potential to provide up to 8,000 housing units for 20,000 people, with more than 1,000 units dedicated to affordable housing. The community will include health services, schools and recreational facilities. The profits from the sale of the Crown land will fund not only affordable housing, but also some of the social infrastructure.

A lot of this development comes back to changes the OSDG and regional stakeholders lobbied for. In the past, there wasn't always the right level of coordination. So a housing project might go forward, but then the school boards wouldn't have the funding to meet increased demand.

What we've been saying is that, if we can forecast an increase of so many students in the next three years, why not provide the funding in advance and build the schools so when families move into the community, the services are there? Same thing for health care—make sure the funding is in place for three or four years down the road rather than for last year. That's starting to happen and I think it will put us in a good position for when growth resumes.

Beyond Fort McMurray, there are Aboriginal communities in the region directly affected by oil sands development. What are the biggest concerns you hear from Aboriginal stakeholders?

ERSKINE: Housing is also a big issue for them, as it is in most Aboriginal communities in Canada. But the concerns they raise with us most often are about the environmental and potential health impacts of oil sands development, and how our operations affect traditional lifestyles related to hunting and trapping.

Suncor has longstanding relationships with the First Nations and Métis of this region. We've worked hard to try to ensure they share in the benefits of oil sands development through business development and employment opportunities. And with those efforts, I think we've built a certain level of trust and mutual respect with many of our Aboriginal stakeholders.

But let's be frank about this: the recent pace of growth sometimes strained those relationships. It didn't help that, over the past couple of years, there were incidents where Suncor had not lived up to its own operational standards—something we're working hard to rectify. We have to spend a lot more time in the Aboriginal communities, listening to their concerns and talking about how we conduct our business so that hopefully they'll have a higher level of comfort about our efforts to protect the environment and human health.

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