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Oil 'matriarch' takes trouble in stride

John D. Sutter
Melissa Blake has been dubbed the "matriarch" of Canada's oil sands, a region of Alberta where companies dig for crude.
Melissa Blake has been dubbed the "matriarch" of Canada's oil sands, a region of Alberta where companies dig for crude.
  • Melissa Blake is the mayor of the Wood Buffalo municipality in Canada
  • The area covers Canada's "oil sands," where companies dig for oil
  • The process has a bad environmental record, but Blake takes controversy in stride
  • She says industrial processes are improving, future will be cleaner

Fort McMurray, Alberta (CNN) -- Mayor Melissa Blake's favorite spot in this oil sands boomtown used to be an island at the convergence of two rivers.

From the intersection of the Clearwater and Athabasca, the 41-year-old, third-term mayor could peer into two worlds: the "burgeoning metropolis" of Fort McMurray, which has grown at a breakneck pace since oil companies started mining for crude up here in the late 1960s, and Canada's boggy forests of pine, birch and spruce.

"Now it's a golf course hole," Blake said.

Ever the optimist, however, Blake's OK with that. Dubbed the "matriarch of Canada's oil sands" by The Globe and Mail, Blake has come to represent this industrial center's easygoing, can-do attitude. ("With my windblown look today, I don't feel very matriarchal!" she said in a recent interview.) Even if things up here aren't perfect -- as the gaping mine pits, cleared forests and toxic lakes of industrial waste will attest -- the situation is improving, she said, and she's confident the progress will continue.

"I don't believe it's going to be exactly what nature had in the first place, but what nature had 100 million years ago, we're seeing evidence, is different from what we have today," she said of the impact mining for oil has had on the regional environment. "So, things change. But what I think we have an obligation to do is make it usable for the future. Whether that turns into forested land or whether it turns into recreation type of areas, what I need to be sure of is it's not going to be open and disturbed forever."

Blake presides over the Wood Buffalo municipality, a 26,000-square-mile, 104,000-person area of northern Alberta, about 620 miles above Canada's border with Montana. The region, which includes Fort McMurray and other communities, has grown quickly in recent decades as oil companies have moved in to mine a form of oil that's mixed in with the dirt.

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By the government of Alberta's estimate, the oil sands are the second-largest reserve of accessible oil in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia. About 1.4 million barrels of the stuff are produced every day, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and about half of that goes southward to the United States.

That percentage may increase if the U.S. State Department approves a controversial pipeline, called the Keystone XL, which would connect the oil sands with Texas. The oil pumped to the Gulf Coast would be refined and consumed in the U.S.

Some people in Great Plains states and environmental groups say the pipeline creates unnecessary risks for an oil spill. They say bitumen, the crude Canada mines for, is unusually corrosive, upping the chance of an oil spill in the middle of the United States, possibly over the Ogallala Aquifer, a major drinking-water source.

Travis Davies, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, dismissed these concerns, saying there's no proof bitumen creates a spill risk any greater than traditional oil. Furthermore, he said, much of the bitumen piped to the United States from Alberta has already been refined into "synthetic crude."

Blake is used to the rest of the world looking wearily upon her community and its flagship industry.

She moved to Fort McMurray as a young girl, with her family from Quebec. Her dad, an asbestos miner, went to work in the oil sands, and she later took a job as a public relations officer for Syncrude, one of the largest oil companies up here.

Blake later worked as a recruiter in the oil industry, which might seem like an easy job considering truck drivers in the mines make a starting annual salary of $110,000.

But plenty of qualified people still turned her down, she said.

That inspired her to run for office.

"It would be things like, 'Well, you don't have a major swimming complex or recreation center ... child care for my kids so my wife can come,' " she said. "These kinds of stories just kept coming in and I kept thinking, 'Well, I can fix that -- I can fix that!' "

To some degree, she has.

The mayor met CNN at the $170 million MacDonald Island recreational center, funded in part by several oil companies. A walk in the front door produces the sensation of a dramatic change in latitude: Visitors leave frozen-river Canada behind and are greeted with a giant swimming pool and water park, sprinkled with palm trees and paintings of tropical beaches; water spews from every orifice.

Blake wears pearls around her neck and has a quiet energy about her. She slapped the table during the interview to punctuate points, but her voice remains completely library-appropriate. In several ways, she seems a walking study in contradictions. Her belief in a better future seems to be what binds all this together.

Despite the bad rap the area's industry gets for fueling global warming and polluting, Blake has spearheaded several municipal environmental initiatives.

Wood Buffalo recently banned disposable bags in stores, and it soon will have a curbside recycling program. In the interim, Blake will continue her current method of stewardship: Driving her plastic, aluminum and the like down to her sister's house in Edmonton, 270 miles to the south. (She doesn't make special trips for this -- only when she's planned a visit. Last time she took 19 bags of recyclables with her, she said.)

She also drives a hybrid. She's not sure exactly how helpful that is in the big picture, but she feels compelled to do whatever's new and hopefully better.

"When you look at what happens next, my Highlander's getting older and I'm thinking -- oh gosh -- I'm going to have to replace the battery. And what's the cost going to be?

"I'm still a believer in whatever the next best thing is -- it's something I should have."

When something gets her down, she just looks to the big picture.

"There's so many positive things," she said of Fort McMurray. "In the summer when you're sitting around a campfire ... there's just something phenomenal about looking up, seeing the Northern Lights and feeling powers greater than you."


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