Over the Christmas holidays Martha (remember Martha? Former Premier Ralph Klein’s fictitious constituent?) and the kids found time to have a little snow fun by tobogganing and building a snowman. Nothing says winter like a snowman with a corn cob pipe, a button nose, and two eyes made out of coal.

But an Anchorage, Alaska man seems to have more time on his hands than the rest of us. Billy Powers and two of his neighbours built a 22 foot high snowman on Christmas Eve. They needed two storeys of scaffolding to pull that off and the eyes were made of two beer bottles. (Martha is sure the beer was poured out, not consumed, during the construction.) Billy’s snowman, called Snowzilla, attracted the attention of national and international news media. Martha even found Japanese and Russian news stories dedicated to the monstrosity.

Snowzilla has become quite the attraction. One AP story noted the dozens of cars parked outside Powers’ front yard and the many people gawking at it in the middle of the street. Most of the gawkers, it noted, were discussing the giant snowman. (“Really?” thought Martha. “When faced with a 22 foot snowman I would be tempted to talk about politics.”)

It went on to note that not everyone is thrilled about Snowzilla. While it attracts love from afar, the next door neighbours aren’t so thrilled and are hoping for an early thaw. They note that the traffic is ridiculous and the noise anything but heartwarming. It isn’t much fun to live next door to a two storey snowman, Martha concluded.

Snowzilla reminded Martha of Alberta’s very own monstrosity of international interest — Fort McMurray. While the nation and the world are all chatting about the giant open pit mine and have come to snap photos of the oil sands that now covers an area the size of Vancouver Island, the neighbours and residents are hoping for some relief. (For facts about the oil sands, visit the Pembina Institute.)

Here’s a snapshot of the issue: the population of Fort McMurray has doubled in nine years and in a recent submission to the Energy and Utilities Board the Mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (which includes the Ward of Fort McMurray), Melissa Blake, said that there is a shortfall of nearly 3,000 homes, 17 police officers and two public schools.

She added that the assault rate is nearly twice the provincial average; its drug offences are triple. Population continues to grow at about 10 per cent a year. The city needs a new water treatment plant, police station, recreation centre and fire hall.

Housing prices are outrageous, (the average house is now over $500,000), there are half as many doctors as are needed, and the lifestyle has become, in the words of one 14 year resident, “intolerable.” That resident, Dr. John O’Connor, wrote a letter in the December 30, 2006 Halifax Chronicle-Herald encouraging Nova Scotians to stay put and enjoy the quality of life there instead of coming to Fort McMurray. O’Connor has been the medical examiner and a family doctor there for 14 years. But he is packing up and moving to Nova Scotia. He points to the conditions in “Fort Mac.”

What has the government of Alberta been doing to lead during this issue? According to a growing number of people: nothing. And these people who are complaining are not so-called special interest groups. The medical examiner and the mayor are not exactly the usual suspects when it comes to people who complain about unfettered growth. But in Fort McMurray, these are the people complaining. And their complaint falls at the feet of a government that has so far completely failed to get fair compensation from multinational oil companies making a fortune. As the Pembina Institute has said:

    The return Albertans get for a barrel of oil sands oil has dropped from $2.90 per barrel in 1997 to just $1.70 per barrel in 2005. While the market value of oil has tripled, the owners’ [that’s the people of Alberta] profit has dropped by 39 per cent.

Oil sands royalties are one per cent because, the Alberta government says, of the high investment needed to get the oil out. What about the high investment needed to provide services to all those workers? What about the high investment for the needed schools, hospitals and police officers? After that Energy and Utility Board hearing in July when Mayor Melissa Blake spoke about the strain on the community, the EUB still decided to approve the Suncor development. But the news release had a few interesting admissions by the EUB:

    In the Decision, the EUB states that it appreciates that continued oil sands development has the potential to further strain public infrastructure and public service delivery in the Wood Buffalo region. The EUB believes that the responsible government agencies are aware of and are responding to a number of the socioeconomic impacts. The EUB believes that additional infrastructure investment in the Wood Buffalo region is needed, and it believes that there is a short window of opportunity to make these investments in parallel with continued oil sands development.

The EUB goes on to encourage the Alberta government to continue to work with local governments to ensure infrastructure needs are met. But in order to meet the growing infrastructure needs of the communities that service the oil sands there needs to be some investment from the people making money off the oil sands.

In 2006, oil royalties that flowed to the Alberta government were about $14 billion. But according to the Energy Minister’s website, only $950 million was from oil sands royalties. (To put that in comparison, the profit that Alberta sees from gaming is expected to be $1.3 billion this year.)

The oil sands are not providing their fair share of revenue to the government so that the government can provide a fair share to the neighbours of the oil sands. The Alberta government must raise the royalty amounts for the oil sands and they must direct that money to the neighbours of Fort-zilla. Otherwise, there will be more and more of us hoping for an early thaw.