Fort St. John will be heard

By Deb Smith

The day Fort St. John No.1 well hit gas in 1951 marked the beginning of the huge oil and gas industry in northeastern B.C. and an economic boom that would carry the small settlement forward to becoming the largest centre north of Prince George. Today, tens of thousands of oil and gas wells tap into the famous Montney formation, estimated at 271 trillion cubic feet with 100 years of production.

Over the course of the next 65 years, the residents of Fort St. John rode the roller coaster of oil and gas markets – money and gas flowing in the boom times, belts tightening when the cycle turned down. The erosion of oil and gas prices since 2014 has had a profound effect on the area. Working out of offices headquartered in Vancouver and Calgary, oil and gas exploration and development companies wait out the downturn, cutting capital and operating expenditures, causing widespread layoffs among those in the field.

By June 2016, Fort St. John had the highest unemployment rate in B.C. despite new job creation in other industries. Many have had to look for work elsewhere, and local companies struggle to keep their skilled workers employed until the market rises again.

“Most of our economy is in servicing the oil and gas sector,” explains Fort St. John’s mayor Lori Ackerman. “So while there is a downturn for those in new production, the servicing companies remain busy. These smaller, medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our economy; they employ local residents and contribute significantly to our social infrastructure. However, natural gas is linked to oil prices, so unemployment is rising.”

Service companies hold fast while current production serves Canadian markets, but that market is already well-supplied; an approved LNG project would open access to global markets. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) is lobbying the federal government, proposing new and emerging green technology that will grow the industry while meeting environment concerns; lobbyists in Vancouver are working to convince politicians that the majority of voters favour LNG.

Meanwhile, Fort St. John is taking action of its own.

“We believe in being proactive rather than reactive,” says Ackerman. Frustrated with seemingly endless delays, residents are rallying to support the proposed Petrona-backed Pacific NorthWest LNG project, a planned $36 billion export terminal that will source natural gas from the Fort St. John region. Ackerman, along with other B.C. mayors and Alan Yu, founder of FSJ (Fort St. John) for LNG, recently travelled to Ottawa to demonstrate their communities’ backing for the project.

“It’s about time the federal decision-makers hear the voices of the unemployed here in Fort St. John and Northeastern B.C.,” Yu told Alaska Highway News. Ackerman envisions a decision-making process that would include municipalities at the table along with their First Nations neighbours, industry leaders, and senior levels of government.

No matter the final outcome, Ackerman knows Fort St. John will survive and prosper. “Natural gas creates a lot of products. We have some processing now, but are looking to take that a step further, create value-added industry.” Forestry is gaining momentum with a rising U.S. housing demand; construction is ramping up on the nearby Site C Clean Energy Project; young professionals are drawn to the attractive lifestyle that Fort St. John offers, and the city is eager to welcome them.

In 2016, for the second year in a row, Fort St. John was chosen by B.C. Business as the best place to work in B.C. Its people work hard and are willing to get out there and get the job done–whether it’s in the field or in the boardroom. Strong and visionary, like the oil and gas industry that surrounds it, the city will continue towards its prosperous and successful future.

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