A handful of the major oil and gas players in the Horn River Basin shale gas play of northeast British Columbia have been working together for the good of the community and the industry in that region since November of 2007.
Dubbed the Horn River Basin Producers Group, this coalition of energy companies was initially brought together to give the local residents of the Fort Nelson area a way to essentially speak to the industry in the region as a whole, ask their questions and voice their concerns, and subsequently have those questions and concerns addressed by a significant segment of the Horn River Basin oil and gas producers in an efficient and coordinated fashion, all at one time and place. The approach lets the people of Fort Nelson get a sense of the direction of development in the region, which would be difficult to do if they could only talk to one company at a time.
"From a communications standpoint, I think it makes a lot more sense to have a group where we share kind of a common vision and communicate that," said Rob Spitzer, Chair of the Horn River Basin Producers Group and Vice President of Exploration for Apache Canada, one of its member companies.
Spitzer notes that the initiative is particularly important to the Fort Nelson First Nation, who had been promoting such an idea prior to the inception of the Producers Group. He also understands that the Fort Nelson First Nation should want to speak with a representative segment of the local producers rather than talk to every company in the region individually in order to discuss their unique cultural, environmental and economic concerns - owing partly to their traditional connection to the land and its wildlife - about how the resource is developed.
It has also given the Producers Group an opportunity to experience and support a taste of First Nations lifestyle and culture.
"As a Producers Group, a number of companies and myself [have] been up to the Petitot Gathering on an annual basis," said Spitzer.
The Petitot Gathering is an annual First Nations and community event in the northeast that offers opportunities to learn about the different cultures in our region.
"It's a really great event," Spitzer continued. "We sponsor some of it, obviously. We send people up there and this is very important."
"It's different when you go up there to see the attachment to the land," he added. "This is something that I think everybody should see, because it will make you keenly aware of the thought processes that they go through. And there's certainly things we can do to accommodate those things. So, I think it's a great event."
However, the Producers Group's mandate is not solely to interact with the Fort Nelson First Nation, but also to interact with the rest of the Fort Nelson community. One of their key concerns is increasing local employment in the industry and they have participated in various events and initiatives in order to achieve that goal.
"One of the reasons that the Producers Group was set up was basically to work with government and local residents and make sure that [we] understand the concerns that are in the community," Spitzer explained.
"There's a couple things that came up loud and clear," he continued. "One was the local employment. That was a big one."
One of the Group's attempts to rectify the local employment problem - historically characterized by the short winter season on the muskeg and the plethora of Alberta license plates on Fort Nelson streets - is to hold an annual Fort Nelson Energy Expo.
"What it is," said Spitzer, "is basically to get the companies working up in the Horn - and that includes the oil and gas companies and the service sector - together with the locals to discuss employment opportunities. It's been a good avenue by which that contact is made so that, basically, the local people who have interest in working in the sector can talk face-to-face with either an oil and gas company rep or a service rep."
The members of the Producers Group are among those companies making a concerted effort to hire from within the Fort Nelson community. They funded a one-time delivery of Northern Lights College's Oil and Gas Field Operators program at the Fort Nelson campus in order to provide local residents with that opportunity. That offering of the program ran from September, 2009 to January, 2010 and had an enrollment of sixteen students.
"I believe it was over-subscribed," said Spitzer, discussing the community's enthusiastic reaction to the program.
"It was in response to the fact that we do feel that we have some obligation to do some work in the community," he continued. "And the thought was that we would target young people who would like to get trained up to work in the industry. And at that time the understanding was that it was only offered in Fort St. John, which is a five hour drive from Fort Nelson. And our thought was to make it local to Fort Nelson since most of the Horn River activity is actually somewhat focused on, obviously, the town of Fort Nelson."
So, the Producers Group discussed the idea with Jeff Lekstrom, the Dean of Trades and Apprenticeship at Northern Lights College, and managed to bring the program to Fort Nelson for one session.
"There may be an opportunity to run it again if the need arises, but at this point we have no plans for it," Spitzer added. "But if there was a demand, we'd certainly consider it again."
Opportunities to work with Northern Lights College on bringing other programs to Fort Nelson may arise in the future, especially if projections concerning population growth and the need for skilled labour in the region hold true, but Spitzer and the Producers Group are understandably cautious on that point.
"There's certainly things that we can look into," he admitted cautiously. "To be honest, right now all this stuff that you hear about, it's really [greatly] contingent on natural gas prices. So, I don't want to mislead anybody here. I know there's people that think it's going to double or triple or be Fort McMurray, but the reality is that fundamentally the price of gas is going to be a big regulator as to how quickly that moves forward."
Another variable is the feasibility of exporting their products to Asia in the near future.
"And that won't sort itself out for a little while," said Spitzer. "The timeframe on that is certainly not in the next few months. It's measured in years."
One thing that is certain is that the people of Fort Nelson will not be left in the dark as to what the industry is doing in their backyard. Communicating with stakeholders is always an important focus for the Producers Group. They hold meetings on a monthly basis and invite Mayor Bill Streeper of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality and members of his staff, the Fort Nelson First Nation, and the provincial government to participate via teleconference. There are also annual meetings between the Producers Group and the Fort Nelson Chamber of Commerce.
"From a Producers Group standpoint, because there's ten companies involved, there's people from one company or other up there all the time, just as a course of business," said Spitzer, describing just how easy it can be to speak with the Producers Group.
"If there's something that comes up that is of concern to another party then, sure, we would make a phone call and have a conversation," he added, noting that he frequently receives telephone calls about issues ranging from local employment to the environment and he feels it is important to address those concerns.
"There's always an avenue of communication."
Spitzer also emphasizes the importance of establishing an "early dialogue."
"There's no point doing this halfway through a large project," he said. "It gets very difficult. It's very good to do it early. And it's also important that you get all the stakeholders and the First Nations engaged."
"I'm not going to paint the picture that it's perfect," he continued. "But, I think, in good conscience, I can say it's much better than it would have been without having such a group."
The fact that the Producers Group has also facilitated communication and cooperation between the member companies has been beneficial to the industry in the region as well.
"For smaller companies," said Spitzer, "it helps them get through things that they might have difficulty with otherwise, because they don't have enough people."
"And I guess the main thing I'm getting at specifically is this: if company X wants to build a road and company Y is next door to them and are also thinking of building a road, wouldn't it be great if company X and company Y have an avenue by which they build one road and share that road? So, I think one of the biggest advantages to all this is being the integration of what companies do."
An important result of that integration has been minimizing surface disturbance, which is a significant issue in terms of its effect on predator-prey relationships and the decline of the caribou population in the region. Surface disturbance from projects such as building roads and pipelines can create long sight lines that make it easier for wolves to prey on deer, moose and caribou.
"One of the concerns was that there's a predator-prey relationship that is a big issue if you shoot seismic lines in a straight fashion," Spitzer explained. "Because, you know, the wolf can see the caribou or the deer or the moose a mile way just looking down the cut line."
"Certain companies were utilizing a meandering line type of way of shooting seismic," he continued. "It's called slim bin seismic. Fundamentally, if you use your cut lines and have them meander, versus being straight, then that predator-prey relationship is more intact and more natural than it would have been by having seismic lines like you'd see at some of the northern fields that were developed thirty, forty years ago. And this is something that we said, 'Well, alright, why don't we all commit to shooting slim bin seismic?' And that's what we have committed to. But it wouldn't have happened, I don't think, without this kind of discussion."
The Producers Group was originally comprised of Apache Canada, Devon Canada, Encana, EOG Resources Canada, Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil Canada, Nexen, Quicksilver Resources and Stone Mountain. It now also includes ConocoPhillips and Pengrowth.