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Rejean Tetrault, operations manager for Shell Canada. (BRENT JANG/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Rejean Tetrault, operations manager for Shell Canada. (BRENT JANG/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

B.C.’s multibillion-dollar path to an energy powerhouse Add to ...

“The reality is that Asia is looking at us, and so that puts a lot of attention on northeast B.C., the province and Canada as a whole,” says Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman.

The region’s airport is bursting at the seams, the local Wal-Mart is starting a major expansion and the Winner’s department store is preparing for a spring opening. Average prices for single-family detached homes surpassed $372,000 (Canadian) in 2013, up 16 per cent since 2011.

Shell opened a new office building last year on former swamp land. Neighbours in other buildings on the road near the Fort St. John airport include the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, Talisman Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Driving Force, a Western Canadian vehicle leasing and rental firm.

“We know in northeast B.C. that things are going to get very busy for us,” Montana Currie, Driving Force’s branch manager in Fort St. John, said in her office in a new $5-million building. Her clients include Progress Energy, Shell, Encana Corp. and Nexen Inc., which was acquired in late 2012 by CNOOC Ltd. of China. “Fort St. John is very positive, and it’s positive energy that gets things done.”

As the region grows quickly, there’s a learning curve for newcomers. Ms. Currie offers a friendly reminder to visiting workers to watch their fuel gauge because some invariably run out of gasoline driving out to remote locations where there aren’t pumping stations.

The North Peace Regional Airport increased the number of parking spots by one-third to more than 320 last summer and doubled the number of car rental spots to 120. Already, the expansion has proven too little to meet surging demand.

WestJet Airlines Ltd. launched its regional Encore service between Fort St. John and Vancouver in June, while Air Canada beefed up its flight offerings on the route. The airport is forecast to handle more than 200,000 passengers in 2014, up from an estimated 144,000 in 2013 and 121,000 in 2010.

“People will be cramped in the terminal building,” says Moira Green, the airport’s managing director. She notes there is only one baggage carousel, but she hopes to eventually add two more.

The population of the Fort St. John region is forecast to nearly double to 123,000 within six years, even if only one or two LNG proposals come to fruition and if other developments proceed, notably coal mining ventures and BC Hydro’s proposed $8-billion Site C Dam. Thousands of construction jobs would be created, although Ms. Green sounds a cautionary note. “We don’t like the boom word. It has a corollary in bust,” she says.

The energy sector needs workers, but they must have the right skills and be prepared for tough conditions, says Jennifer Moore of the North Peace Economic Development Commission. “It takes more than two feet and a heart beat to land a job,” she says.

“It’s winter here for a long portion of the year. You need your steel-toed boots and coveralls. You also need to know that you can survive when it’s minus 40 out there. Work doesn’t stop because it’s minus 40,” Ms. Moore said as she drove along the Alaska Highway in her pickup truck. “Make sure you’ve done your research before you come here for a job.”

The road between Fort St. John and Dawson Creek, a city popular with summer tourists for its Mile Zero Post to mark the start of the Alaska Highway, is a busy link year-round as convoys of heavy-duty trucks carry equipment to and from drilling sites in the Peace River region.

While drilling activity dates back to the 1950s in Fort St. John and parts north, the fast pace of energy development is relatively new to Dawson Creek and parts south. Shell and other producers have been venturing into territory previously dominated by cows instead of rigs. Setting up drilling sites sometimes requires careful timing so as to keep the peace with local ranchers. There could be dozens of trucks on a road headed toward a drilling site, but if cows stand in the way, then commerce grinds to a halt.

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