If the province gets the LNG windfall the private sector is predicting, towns and villages around northern B.C. will not look the same.
There will be an influx of construction workers for a short period of time on the west coast, a large contingent of west coast liquefied natural gas plant workers and shipping personnel will be there ongoing, the northeast will see even more gas drilling work, there will be services emanating from Prince George, plus all the services needed to support those services in each town in the equation.
In anticipation of these community profile changes, the provincial government has embarked on a research project of ministerial proportions. Each liquefied natural gas project and burgeoning mining project has its human resources numbers, so these are being tallied and applied to the communities they effect, then cross-referenced against the existing factors within those communities. How many doctors, nurses, teachers, road maintenance workers, municipal employees, etc., will be needed in Kitimat? Prince Rupert? Terrace?
"Minister Coralee Oakes is leading the study that will find the gaps," said Rich Coleman, the Minister of Natural Gas Development and Minister Responsible for Housing, speaking to members of the Prince George Chamber of Commerce. "She has already started on that. Prince Rupert has already had some growth issues, so we're learning from that, in Kitimat they have quite a confined airshed so we are looking at that."
Oakes told The Citizen that the research mission was a critical one for the quality of life in northern B.C. Since the industrial applications were going to largely happen in the north, the benefits should also be retained in the north as much as possible, and certainly it shouldn't create any avoidable pain to communities.
"I would say the No. 1 thing we are looking at is affordable housing," she said, acknowledging that "we know population growth of any kind puts pressure on housing markets, and that is a good thing in many ways," but calculations had to be made to anticipate how many people wouldn't be able to afford rising home values, and to put in place affordable options for them. People of low income can still contribute meaningfully to a local economy, but if they are shut out completely they can become red ink instead of black ink on the community ledger. An affordable housing plan can insulate against that, but those have to be carefully designed, hence Oakes's keen interest in that topic first.
The second item on the list is safety amenities (ambulances, police members, nurses, etc.), followed by the gamut of social services. Oakes is also drawing circles around the holes that already exist in the social fabric of these communities, to bring further attention to immediate goals.
"We are doing research with a number of stakeholders, agencies like Northern Health and BC Housing, and local governments to find out what the needs are now and the needs to be anticipated," said Oakes.
"We're looking at the demand forecasts, but the tricky thing is, until you get final investment commitments, you don't know for sure what implementations to make," she added. "We have to look at each community in the region distinctly for what the needs are going to be. We have to do some educated guessing as to what each community is likely going to need, to make sure they are ready for what's coming."
If even one of the 13 proposed LNG projects do not go ahead, it could have profound impacts on any one community along its route, especially at the entry and exit points, not to mention the mill and mine activities also in the mix.
Each community along the way looks after its own menu of amenities and future needs. All, including Prince George, are governed by councillors paid on a stipend basis who do the work part-time on top of their jobs or studies (some mayors are full-time civil servants). Oakes, who used to be a councillor in Quesnel, said she empirically understands that it is hard for these elected officials to have a strong working knowledge of development forecasting and urban planning on this kind of scale.
"I absolutely understand the difficult time a town council or Regional District or First Nation has understanding the opportunities. They are rightly feeling overwhelmed and thinking not enough is happening to help them understand. On their behalf, this research underway now is our opportunity to gather information and not miss any important pieces, so we get it right."
Coleman said the reason LNG is a priority industry for B.C. is the aggressive competition from other natural gas-producing countries, and the fact B.C. is poised to win that race because of proximity to the markets most in need (eastern and southern Asia), climate (hot weather is costly to LNG infrastructure) and cultural readiness (stable governments, educated population).
"It is a really reachable goal," he said, and it doesn't come at the expense of other industries. He also highlighted the income it would generate B.C. from outside investment, not just moving dollars around the internal economy.
"We want to be a debt-free province, and we're not kidding," he said. "It is about the ability of society to look after those who are less fortunate than ourselves. It is about clearing the hurdles so other industries can flourish like film and high-tech and tourism. So we can have a British Columbia we can hand down to our next generations without deficits attached."