Fort Nelson – after a sunny, summery long weekend, there’s snow here in northeastern BC. But I don’t want to start with a weather report. Let’s start with this instead: “The prize is here.” These are the words of mayor Bill Streeper, describing the humungous natural gas potential of this region, squeezed into a corner of BC bordered by Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Fort Nelson is at the centre of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which is about 10% of the land mass of BC. It also contains three massive natural gas plays: the Horn River Basin (north of Fort Nelson), Cordova Embayment (to the northeast), and the Liard Basin (northwest). I could get into details on the recoverable reserves projected from each area, but consider these instead: the Government of Canada calls the Horn River wells among western Canada’s most productive natural gas wells, and Apache Corp calls its recent discovery in the Liard “the best shale gas reservoir in North America.” In other words, this is big.
I sure got that feeling literally the moment I arrived here. Walking off the plane and into the airport, I was confronted with the biggest crowd I think I’ve ever seen at a regional airport. It was full of (mostly) guys waiting to be transported to one of the industrial sites in the area, likely in the Horn River Basin. Apparently, it’s not unusual for a few 737s to be parked on the tarmac, fresh from depositing workers from all over. At any given time, there are thousands in work camps around Fort Nelson, which itself has a population of about 5,000. The natural gas they work to extract would largely supply the planned construction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants on the west coast that would export natural gas to Asian markets.
But what does all of this mean FOR US? Bill Streeper thinks it’s about a new era for northern BC. For the first time, the energy industry isn’t relegated to the parts of BC that lie to the east of the Rocky Mountains. During my presentation to the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality tonight, I outlined UNBC’s ambitions in energy and the opportunity to utilize the campus and our education programs to integrate local energy production with other aspects of community sustainability such as housing and food production. Streeper thinks the opportunities are deeper, and involve positioning UNBC as a site for energy-related research and education of the professionals needed by industry and the communities growing beside of it. There’s clearly a sense of promise here, and it isn’t being buried by the snow.