Fort McMurray's growth is seemingly unstoppable. The oil-rich northern Alberta city has almost doubled in population since 1999, resulting in an infrastructure crisis and a substantial environmental footprint, but an agreement between the University of Calgary and the Municipality of Wood Buffalo hopes to remedy some of northern Alberta's growing pains.
U of C president Dr. Harvey Weingarten and Mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Melissa Blake signed a memorandum of understanding Tues., Mar. 6 to increase the U of C's research presence in the municipality, which includes Fort McMurray and the surrounding region.
"There is huge opportunity for our students and researchers to apply some of what they do to those issues," said Weingarten. "These are serious, real-time, real-life challenges and it's our job as a public university to help provide solutions."
The new agreement does not require the U of C to front additional funding, explained Weingarten. Rather, it will draw from existing funding, including research grants and student funding to focus on solutions to both the scientific and social problems associated with northern Alberta's rapid growth.
"We are producing energy with too much greenhouse gas emissions," said Weingarten. "There is some very interesting research going on to extract the oil from the oil sands with much less of an environmental footprint than we have now. [We will also address] health care issues. The social infrastructure up there is something that needs attention and we are working for some creative solutions to those issues."
Despite the agreement, U of C has no plans for a satellite campus in Fort Mac, but will work with the existing Keyano College to develop partner programs.
"We are planning to collaborate with the different programs," said Keyano College vice-president operations and finance Al Adibi, noting Keyano already has similar partnerships with NAIT, SAIT and the University of Alberta. "As of September 2008 we are hoping to offer a bachelor of social work. Of course, because of expansion in the oil sands, we are looking at major expansion in terms of trades and technology, but we are also looking at university studies."
The memorandum was only part of two days of meetings between a delegation from Fort McMurray and researchers, administration and students from both the U of C and SAIT.
Blake said the partnership is necessary to accommodate growth in Fort McMurray, which is pegged at nine per cent per year and will drive the population to 100,000 people within the next five years.
"It's about building sustainability into new communities we're creating," said Blake. "We can look at what exists anywhere from fifty to whatever years-old and it's just not what would be an acceptable standard for today."
"Putting the right parameters into place is not in our expertise," she continued. "We haven't done it before, but if we combine efforts with the university, who are leading research in this area, we can do it now. Within five years we can have a brand-new, sustainable community development project."
"It's not necessarily as long-term as you might expect," she continued. "There are some immediate benefits to come out of it."
Specific programs already underway in and around Fort McMurray include a faculty of science analysis of tree rings to determine changes in soil and air quality, an engineering project to verify Albian Sands Energy's air monitoring processes, partnerships with the faculty of environmental design to plan for sustainable growth and the movement of the third-year environmental science field school from southern Alberta to Fort McMurray.