From the monthly archives: May 2010


Like our children, it sustains us in a myriad of ways. It also challenges us as only the things we’re intensely passionate about can. It’s something more than our livelihood, our playground and our legacy.

Literally, the land is our life. As we live, so does the land.

Competing interests, however, continue to make the forward strides in environmental responsibility, industrial accountability and the practice of good stewardship look like baby steps.

We’re spoiled in many ways. The expanses of empty land have offered unprecedented room for everyone, but even here, the 21st Century encroaches. As that happens, the rights and needs of the various stakeholders clash more frequently.

There are never easy answers to the push and pull of industrial, agricultural and traditional land use in the moment, never mind into the future. The region has struggled to make sure that all stakeholders have a voice in how land is managed from the extraction of subsurface resources to a reasonable and equitable use of water.

It still takes the Wisdom of Solomon to know how to split the baby – and as more people compete for the same land, more pieces to split it into.

With all parties holding equally legitimate concerns and uses, all of which go into supporting the region’s economy and quality of life in their own way, even Solomon might struggle for the right solution.

The various factions need to stay in close contact with each other. Perhaps more importantly, remembering the whole is more than the sum of its parts will mean, as it did in Solomon’s story, that everyone doesn’t end up with useless parts of something that was once a miracle.

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Arguably, the most important provincial portfolio for the North is that held by the Ministers of Energy. The demands of a rapidly evolving energy sector, and how those ministers respond, is key to the economic and social viability of Northern communities on both sides of the border.

In Alberta, that portfolio has switched hands from a northerner Mel Knight to Calgary based Ron Liepert. NWB checked in with him about his first few months in that position.

NWB: For readers that are unfamiliar with you, can you talk a little about your background and why you chose to get into politics?

RL: I think first, start with the fact that I have a media background. I spent eight years in radio and television and I was covering the Alberta Legislature in 1980 and Peter Lougheed offered me an opportunity as press secretary. I was with him for five years until he retired in ’85 and that would have been my real introduction to politics. Between ’85 and 2004 I was involved in the background if you might. I ran a number of political campaigns and then decided to run in 2004 and here we are.

NWB: What other portfolio’s have you held?

RL: I was Minister of Education from the time Premier Stelmach took over in December of 2006 until the provincial election in 2008 and then after the election in March of 2008 I was Minister of Health for almost two years and then in January of this year, the Premier appointed me Minister of Energy.

NWB: What has been the biggest difference between this portfolio and your previous positions?

RL: Both education and health are on the social side and there’s a lot of passion around education and health. Energy, you’re dealing with, basically, people who just want to get at it and get the job done, so I think that would be the biggest difference.

Clearly, when you’re dealing with energy, you’re dealing with individuals and companies that are talking billions and even though heath care and education are major expenditures, a $5 item in health or education seems like a major decision. So, I think it’s just the magnitude of it but probably most of all, it’s the passion.

NWB: Has the portfolio handed you any surprises?

RL: I wouldn’t say surprises. It’s clearly it’s a learning experience because I don’t have an energy background, but I wouldn’t say there are any surprises. Energy is so incredibly technical, trying to figure out the difference between a megawatt and a kilowatt is not something that the average guy on the street understands or cares about but, I have to try and figure that out and so it’s not so much surprises as, I would say, trying to learn and understand the technical aspects of the energy department.

NWB: Having had a few months to get your feet under you, what are your personal priorities for your ministry?

RL: First of all, the very first priority was to complete and respond to our Competitiveness Review, which we’ve now done, because I think the result of that work really helped us rebuild trust between government and industry. That was a big first step.

We have challenges when it comes to international natural gas pricing and I think we need to work with industry to figure out either things that we can do that can help them through what is going to be a period of low prices…but, we also need to try and work with industry to ensure that we’re capturing all of the benefits of our oil and gas industry and I would say those are probably what we’ll be focusing on over the next period of time.

NWB: Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to in the coming months?

RL: Obviously, we want to ensure that those who derive their livelihood from the energy industry continue to do so and that we’ve got policies in place that allow small communities across this province to thrive because the energy industry is the heart of thriving rural communities. Some of that has not been as strong in recent months, in the past year or so, and that’s where I think we need to work toward rebuilding.

NWB: What do you see as your biggest challenges in this ministry?

RL: Well, the natural gas situation is the biggest challenge right now and unfortunately that is out of our control. We need to work with the natural gas industry. Listen if they have suggestions and ideas of how to meet those challenges, we’d like to work with them.

I think also working with the power producers, transmission providers to ensure that we’ve got electricity to continue to drive our industrial development in the future because electricity is a big part of the energy portfolio as well.

NWB: What about infrastructure? At least in the Fort McMurray area that has been a challenge.

RL: It was in the past but we’ve really caught up a lot in the last few years. We appointed the Oil Sands (Sustainable Development) Secretariat. That secretariat’s been working for three or four years now and it’s really pulled together the needs so that we’ve had a focused effort. Lots of work still needs to be done and it’s going to take time – such as dividing Highway 63 – those kinds of things. In terms of the immediate infrastructure in the Fort McMurray region, we’ve actually made tremendous progress there.

NWB: Has the recently released Competitiveness Review changed how you will approach dealing with Alberta’s energy sector?

RL: I don’t think it’s changed it but what it has done is, as I said earlier, allowed us to rebuild trust in one another and we want to, as a result of the work that was done through the Competitiveness Review, we want to ensure that we continue to use that model going forward, where we work with industry and that’s been very well received.

When we released the Competitiveness Review, I didn’t look at that as the end of a process, I really looked at it as the beginning of a process so that’s how I see it rolling out – as a more cooperative approach.

NWB: Do you have any special energy projects you would like to promote as minister?

RL: I don’t think there are any special projects but we clearly have a couple of announced policies that will result in projects that we need to follow through on. Under the BRIK Program, Bitumen Royalty-in-Kind, we now have proposals that we’re analyzing to award that contract and we have the four carbon capture and storage projects that we’re working with the four proponents to get all of the letters of intent done…(these) are the ones that will require immediate attention.

NWB: A Pembina Institute report (see page 32) on in situ projects didn’t give a very favourable assessment regarding their environmental practices. The report stated that on average mining produces lower emissions than in situ development. Can you comment?

RL: I wouldn’t make any comment other than the fact that, whether it’s the Pembina Institute or it’s the Faculty of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, when a report is done and released publically, I make sure that our department takes a look at it and analyzes it and if there are good recommendations, that we listen to them. That’s where it’s at now; the Pembina report is being analyzed by our department.

NWB: The oil sands have seen significant funding either to support development or support the research associated with improving production there. In light of the Pembina report, is there anything you feel needs to be adjusted in the province’s approach to oil sand development?

RL: I can’t comment on that until we analyze the Pembina report. It’s a particular institute’s report, it’s not a government report so we want to analyze it and if there are some adjustments to be made, we’ll look at them.

NWB: Ministers often build on the successes of their predecessors. What successes would you like to build on?

RL: I made it very clear that I’ve been very fortunate, especially using the Competitiveness Review as an example, an awful lot of good work was done by my predecessor Mel Knight, in getting the Competitiveness Review to the stage that it was when I took over the portfolio.

I mentioned earlier, carbon capture and storage, Bitumen Royalty-in-Kind; these are all policies that were put in place over the past three years and so those are successes that I clearly need to and want to take through to fruition.

NWB: What would you like to say to the people that depend on the energy sector for their livelihood?

RL: Well, I think what we need to do is we need to be more open and supportive of the energy industry. It’s the economic driver of this province and we shouldn’t apologize for it and we need to be proud of what’s been accomplished in energy in this province. We have leading technology, leading environmental policies, and we shouldn’t be at all defensive and we should be proud of the fact that it is the economic driver and over the next couple of years in this portfolio, I want to make sure that people around the world realize that.

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Moving toward a new transparency, BC’s Oil and Gas Commission is ramping up their interaction with industry, government and the land.

After criticisms levied in February by the auditor general, BC’s Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) has come under scrutiny from more than government and landowners. The audit was an opportunity to turn eyes inward and do their own assessment of their role and how they are carrying that out.

“Audits are great pressure points,” said Ferguson. “One of the things that the auditor commented on, that was very appropriate from my point of view, was that improvement is needed in the transparency of what we’re doing.”

An estimated 20,400 oil and gas well sites exist in British Columbia – most in the Northeast. Predictably, issues of safety and quality of life can ignite strong passions for those potentially impacted by oil and gas activity.

Sites like these are required to be returned to pre-construction condition upon abandonment. Operators must apply to the commission for a Certificate of Restoration.

At the hub of tensions between industry, government and the public, the OGC is sometimes in the unenviable position of being accountable for decisions and policies determined by government as much as for how they interpret and implement those policies.

It’s an evolving process supported by the March 29 introduction of amendments to the Oil and Gas Activities Act (OGAA).

The policies and procedures being implemented by the OGC can, ultimately, only be as effective as the legislative framework they derive from.

And if the devil is in the details, thenit’s only because the solutions to the auditor general’s list of disappointments is found as much in new legislation as in changes to OGC practices.

“Once we get the tools better defined with the act implemented, I think that’s the time to start judging us. I’m welcoming the right kind of challenge and questioning of what we’re doing,” said Ferguson.

“What we need to do is get that criticism in ways that are defined enough that we can actually do something about it.”

From reclamation…

At the heart of the auditor general’s report is the issue of contaminated site reclamation.

The report found that there is “an incomplete inventory of contaminated sites and their status; the inability to provide information about the risk borne by the province for contaminated sites; and the need to assess provincial performance security provisions to ensure operators fulfill their site restoration responsibilities”.

Ferguson said he believes they have now identified most if not all contaminated sites and that under the province’s direction, have prioritize those on private land.

“We’re dealing with the things we know about – getting them reclaimed to environment standards and working with the landowners. I think they’ll be done over the next year or two,” said Ferguson.

“We don’t just go clean them up and walk away as soon as they’re done. There’s a couple of years we want to see soil productivity – evidence those sites are now returned to some reasonably productive state, if they’re on agricultural land for example.”

The amendments to the OGAA have provided the OGC with greater power to deal with orphan sites.

“In my view, giving the commission more flexibility in the application of the Orphan Fund is a good thing,” said Ferguson. Case-in-point: a dump site was discovered where no owner could be found. The site fell into a legislative grey area because it wasn’t an actual well. When Ferguson declared it an orphan site and used money from the Orphan Site Reclamation Fund, Ferguson said he drew criticism from the auditor general over the spending.

The amendment takes care of those kinds of situations by giving the Oil and Gas Commissioner greater authority to make determinations about sites and how they are dealt with.

They also provide greater latitude in assessing penalties on sites where the owner is known. Historically, the commission’s only choice was to shut down a site in violation of regulations.

To protect the province from having to take on thefinancial burden for cleaning up contaminated sites, one very effective safety net was in place. All operators had their producing and non-producing assets within BC assessed before being permitted to operate.

Flow Line

“I want to make sure that there’s enough producing assets for that operator that are making money over a threshold we use as a test so that, if I start getting uncomfortable, I’ll go in before it’s too late, take over the assets that are producing and use the revenue from that to reclaim and address any liability that’s out there,” explained Ferguson.

That type of action is rare and necessitates the OGC going into the business of production – not the business they want to be in.

“In the new act (Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Statutes Amendment Act), we’ll have the ability to have administrative penalties against a company rather than just (the choice to) shut them down or not. We want to be able to have incremental enforcement abilities and have fines and those kinds of things as you go through,” said Ferguson.

The ability to act sooner, and with an escalating series of remedies provides additional safeguards to both the public and government.

…to stewardship

“One thing…I’m particularly interested in, is finding a way to get this industry, which is very much well by well, road by road, to contribute to government’s stewardship objectives of the land at a scale that’s more relevant to some of those objectives,” said Ferguson.

“There’s nothing there yet that really drives, forces industry, to work at the scale that’s more conducive to dealing with some of those larger stewardship objectives.”

Noting that the unconventional gas plays now being developed are perhaps more conducive to that kind of work, Ferguson used the Horn River Producers Group as a prime example of what can happen.
“The producers come together and form kind of a collective group to manage that whole play area in a coordinated fashion…I think that creates a better environmental footprint. I think one of the things we’re going to try to do is accelerate that kind of thinking.”

There are other industries on the ground in BC, and Ferguson knows that he can help provide only some of the pieces to the solution. But, he adds, if he can spur the petroleum industry to interact with the forestry sector, for example, he will at least know he isn’t “an impediment to getting to a solution for cumulative effects”.

“If we can do that, wow, that’s pretty amazing stuff,” he said. “The new act is going to help us in a number of ways to get there but we’re taking some of that now without the new act so that tells you there’s a little bit of thinking going on at the old Oil and Gas Commission.”

The auditor’s report acknowledged “the OGC has supported the development of some tools and methodologies to assess cumulative effects”, they also pointed out that “no formal provincial program is yet in place to help manage the environmental effects of developments on the land base.”

Their recommendation was to have the OGC work in conjunction with key government ministries and other stakeholders to assist in developing a formal program for conducting cumulative effects assessments.
For that to happen, relationships must be strengthened with a view to collaborative action and that is happening already, said Ferguson.

“I met with the Agricultural Land Commission CEO Erik Karlsen and we started to map out a new approach, a partnership between us, on how we are going to collectively do a better job of managing the oil and gas and agricultural interface in the Peace,” said Ferguson.

Recognizing the relative importance of the oil and gas industry as a non-renewable resource and agricultural land as a renewable one was a first step in protecting the province’s agricultural resources from industrial activity.

Ferguson plans to continue discussions until a defined plan takes place, which can then be brought forward to the public for consultation and feedback. If things go the way Ferguson plans, there will be something concrete in place this year.

“I think we’re going to start a process here in consultation with the public and the stakeholders out there to really raise the bar in terms of how we are working together to better manage that agriculture resource,” he said.

“The big key here is around the reclamation. OGAA is going to help us because it gives us more tools and…I think putting those pieces together, there’s a window of great opportunity here.”

Reclamation goals were the focus of the auditor general however, the OGC is taking those values and ideals and asking how they can implement them on a larger scale than has been done in the past.

Going Forward

“As we go forward, my objective would be to have a culture here, and a way of working, that we tell people what we’re doing before we’re asked,” said Ferguson. “If we can get to that kind of thinking then people should have more confidence in what we’re trying to do out there.”

For the next few years, ‘there’ to a large extent is going to be the South Peace and addressing the concerns of those communities.

The shift of activity from the North to the South Peace was identified a few years ago. In response, the OGC opened a new office in Dawson Creek so they could be where the activity is heating up and were they could be on the ground to ease the transition for the people of the area, many who were not accustomed to the level of activity that they are now immersed in.

For the last 18 months, detailed data has been collected on the kinds of concerns residents are coming forward with so that over time, the trends can be identified and efforts to provide information and solutions can be targeted appropriately.

Issues of safety and quality of life are both being given greater attention and some important changes have already been implemented within the last several weeks.

“We’re pretty comfortable with all the tools that we have in terms of separating safety issues from quality of life issues,” said Ferguson. It is perhaps the quality of life issues that provide the greater challenge because unlike safety – where one size fits all – quality of life is subjective and changes from person to person.

As the amount of interface between staff and landowners increases, staff spends more time trying to identify what those quality of life issues are and how to provide relief for people, said Ferguson.

Just as legislation has had to adjust to provide clarity, policies will have to adjust to address the needs of those most affected.

Whether the concern is about air quality, setbacks, or dust and traffic, the key will be to keep the flow of information open between the public, industry and government.

“We have an obligation to make sure we’re out there more and it’s arguable whether we’re doing enough. I would argue we’re probably not doing enough – yet – and I don’t know when enough is enough but I’m sure we’ll work our way toward that end at some point.”

“We started talking to those people that we don’t hear from. I get 100 per cent sample from the people that are having trouble…we hear about it, we hear about the issues. I get a zero percent sample of the people that aren’t having trouble. So if we’re designing some policy, or change in our process or want to advise government…we probably have an obligation to sample at least some of those people as well,” said Ferguson.

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Answers on industry emissions pursued by Northern Health.

Northeastern BC’s booming natural gas industry has been a boon to many and a burden to few. The resources-intensive corner of the province is contributing in many ways to provincial coffers, even as the industry is negotiating through a rut of lower-than-expected gas prices.

Perhaps as a result of the slackened pace of exploration and upstream development, the byproducts of the booming natural gas industry are beginning to come under scrutiny. Those living within visual range of flare stacks have long expressed concerns about the long-term effects of emissions.

Despite anecdotal evidence, there’s been little concrete action in terms of measuring and classifying the effects of those contaminants, such as nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxide and volatile organic compounds.

Now Northern Health, the regional health administration covering Northeastern BC, is calling for action based on a principle as old as bureaucracy itself: you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

In a recent letter to BC’s Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), medical health officer Dr. Charl Badenhorst requested “a transparent process to collect and report essential available data from key role players to (assure) the public and the medical health officers that the industry is managed in a safe and responsible way.”

Data not available

“There are discussions in terms of how we can get summary data involved from companies,” he explained to Northwest Business. “When there are exceedances, it gets reported to the Oil and Gas Commission. It’s important that we have some kind of summary data that could look at exposure from sources over time.. we don’t have it at this stage.”

Badenhorst has led an oil and gas working group for the last two years, a roundtable that includes provincial and local government, industry, health professionals and landowner advocates. As a result of slow but constructive action, Badenhorst said the group expects to have air monitors up and running by the end of the year.

“Once we have that information, we can make an estimate of the long term exposure to people,” he said. “If you ask me, ‘what’s the air quality of high-risk areas in the Northeast?’, I don’t know. And we need to get that information. It’s probably available, but it’s not available in a way that we can use it, from a health point of view.”

“As a group, we are working and will involve experts in the field to determine where are the best spots to do air quality monitoring. Then we have to agree to what will be measured, and how we interpret and use that information. It’s a complex process.. you have one shot in terms of trying to get exposure data, which will be limited to maybe two or three weeks per site.”

The effects of the industry on public health has been on the radar of Northern Health before. A December 2007 report from former medical health officer Dr. Lorna Medd called for, among other measures, more health funding to address the impacts associated with the industry. That report reached the provincial government, but seemed to have little impact.

A handful of previous studies have looked into the effects of long-term exposure to gas infrastructure. The six-year, $17-million Western Interprovincial Scientific Studies Association (WISSA) was funded by the four western provinces to look at the effects of sour gas on cattle and starling.

Though the results didn’t show any startling trends for the animals involved, the study did little to clarify the effects of gas infrastructure on people.

“We really lacked confidence there was any ability to look at exposure for humans,” said Dr. Ray Copes, a consultant to the WISSA study and now a director of environmental health at the BC Centre for Disease Control.

BC emissions numbers low: researcher

While the province keeps track of emissions from the upstream oil and gas industry, an exclusive focus on large point sources of emissions has left out the cumulative effect of thousands of smaller sources.

According to research carried out by U.B.C. Forest Resources Management graduate student Judi Krzyzanowski, actual atmospheric emissions in Northeast British Columbia are significantly higher than the numbers reported by the province.

“In essence, these thousands of ‘small’ sources together produce emissions comparable to the large reported sources,” explained the doctoral candidate.

All emission reporting in Canada is now carried out through the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI), a process that’s only carried out for sites that involve more than 20,000 employee hours per year. Most of BC’s upstream oil and gas sector sources fall short of that threshold.

The NRPI began in 1994 and is now used for all reporting, as required since 2000 under  the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Prior to that, the Criteria Air Contaminants (CAC) system was used in BC in order to measure sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and other pollutants known for their contribution to acid rain and photochemical smog.

“While reporting policy and practice have changed significantly, they are no more accurate or inclusive,” said Krzyzanowski. “The (Northeast) region really needs some air quality monitoring in high risk areas before we know for sure what actual levels of pollutants are. Based on modelling I conducted using the year 2000 emissions.. levels of some pollutants may reach levels capable of injuring ecosystems and human health.”

“However, models, although frequently used for regulatory purposes, are not known for their accuracy,” she added.

Less flaring near landowners

The 2006 BC Energy Plan calls for routine flaring to be reduced by 50 per cent by 2011, and eliminated by 2016. In a follow-up move last month (April 8), the OGC issued a directive to reduce flaring  during inline testing operations for new wells.

The move will come as a relief to many rural landowners, who’ve faced the prospect of daily exposure to thousands of small emissions from wellheads, compressor stations, and emergency shut-down valves forming a maze around their quarter sections. The directive is specifically aimed at wells located within 1.25 kilometres of a residence and three kilometres or less from pipeline infrastructure, and the OGC notes the move is partially aimed at addressing public concerns about air quality and visual impacts.

For safety reasons, well completion clean-up flaring is not subject to the directive. The OGC notes that the consequences of poor cleanup include piping erosion from sand – the exact cause of the failure of an EnCana wellhead near Pouce Coupe, BC last November. That failure resulted in an eight-hour  hydrogen sulphide leak, alleged exposure-related injuries to livestock, and an embarrassing mistake for North America’s biggest gas producer.

Last month (March 11), the Peace River Regional District voted to support a call for a public inquiry into that gas leak. The landowners group who initiated the call for inquiry told the board they hope it can prove whether negative health affects resulted from the leak, and cited Badenhorst’s support for their concerns.

Mobile monitoring coming to BC Peace

In a related provincial action, BC’s Mobile Air Monitoring Laboratory (MAML) will visit four locations in the BC Peace this summer – Tomslake, Rolla, Farmington and Groundbirch.

The MAML will monitor air quality for two to four weeks in those places, which are each hotbeds of criticism against the way the gas industry does business.

While the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources (MEMPR) claims no knowledge of air quality issues in those areas, Peace River South MLA and Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom noted in a press release the importance of monitoring air quality throughout the province.

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Reductions form an integral part of Alberta’s competitive future, but is it the right approach?

The royalty rate ride continues in politically-volatile Alberta, after the provincial government signalled its intent in March to retreat back to lower levels of oil and gas royalties.

An early March poll by Environics found nearly half of Albertans disapprove of the government’s handling of royalties. The numbers are split between those who wish to see the rate increased or decreased. Disapproval may also stem from the fact that Albertans – the owners of the province’s resources – were left out of the process of reviewing the royalty rates.

“The goal is to maximize value to Albertans, yet they have been excluded from negotiations,” said Chris Severson-Baker, policy director for the Pembina Institute.

“We can’t be sure that today’s changes will allow Albertans to get the best value from the development of their resource because they weren’t consulted as part of this review.”

It is welcome news to large and small scale producers, however, who can now look forward to significantly lower rates starting January 2011. The new system will be tougher on the industry’s bottom line than what existed two years ago, but not as demanding as the changes brought in last year.

A highlight for many is a now-permanent five per cent rate on natural gas and conventional oil wells in their first year of production. Maximum royalties have also been reduced from 50 to 40 per cent for conventional oil, and 50 to 36 per cent for natural gas. The changes are slated to take effect in January 2011, except for tar sands producers, who face no change in royalty levels.

For the Conservative Government, it’s hoped the move will ease the pressure they’ve been under since increasing royalty rates in January 2009 – a move that coincided with successful efforts by BC and Saskatchewan to lure the industry to their domains.

“There’s an understanding by government that after the new royalty regulations were introduced, there was a game-changing technology which opened up reserves in other jurisdictions which previously did not compete with Alberta for investment dollars,” explained Alberta Energy spokesman Bob McManus. “Because of the ability to bring up the shale gas, they were now in the game.”

Plans to bolster Alberta’s competitiveness were first unveiled during the Throne Speech in early February, and solidified in the first bill of the session – the Competitiveness Act. Most of the details came out in mid-March, with the remaining royalty curves to be announced by the end of May.

Alberta Energy’s forecast is that the royalty changes will bring an additional $2.1 billion into the provincial treasury, despite up to $400 million less in royalties from conventional oil and both conventional and unconventional gas in the near-term.

While Premier Ed Stelmach expects the royalty reduction could result in 8,000 jobs next year and 13,000 by fiscal 2013, the provincial treasury is also expected to see a $785-million shortfall in royalty revenues by that time. The government is clearly hoping the lower royalties will spur increased activity and land sales, and decreased support for the upstart Wildrose Alliance. Stelmach is seemingly staking his political hide on that hope.

That could be wishful thinking in the face of a National Energy Board report released in late March. It predicts Alberta gas production will fall to 8.5 billion cubic feet (bcf) per day over the next few years from 12.7 bcf per day, while output in the Montney and Horn River Basin plays in Northeastern British Columbia is expected to rise to 3.7 bcf per day.

Alberta Energy’s predictions also include a drop in natural gas production, though McManus couldn’t say how those predictions compare to the NEB’s. Production levels are expected to recover through strengthening gas prices and through tapping into unconventional reserves, he said.

Meanwhile, BC also continues to spur the industry forward with lucrative credit programs. In March, the province added a new $120-million installment to the Infrastructure Royalty Credit program, which means reduced royalty rates for gas extracted as a result of a new road or pipeline put in place by a company. That program also gives the province a return of about $2.50 for every $1 of credit extended, and as many as 210 Montney wells and 70 Horn River Basin wells could be drilled by the end of this year.

The competitiveness review is bigger than the royalty reductions alone – it’s a larger initiative aimed at creating a competitive environment across a number of industries in Alberta, working hand in hand with Alberta’s ‘The Way Forward’ economic recovery plan. Innovation, productivity and technology are also getting a major push under the review.

Enhanced communications are also a significant part of the rollout, which calls for more reporting to the public about how Alberta’s competitiveness contributes to the province’s prosperity, environment and quality of life.

Minister of Finance and Enterprise Ted Morton will be at the helm of the new initiatives, which add up to an ambitious end goal: bringing Alberta back into a surplus position in three years, through a combination of less government spending and continued public infrastructure investments.

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Melding the best of both worlds, Dawson Creek has not only pulled off a one-of-a-kind environmental coup, but they’ve done it in conjunction with promoting industrial development.

The announcement of a proposed contract with Shell Canada that will see the issue of industrial water use addressed in a creative and innovative manner, once again puts Dawson Creek on the cutting edge of sustainable development.

“We have all the documentation to show that this will add 25 years to the life of our water supply at the present rate of growth and current usage – and that’s not even adding further reduction strategies,” said Mayor Mike Bernier.

In a region familiar with drought, dealing with water conservation is critical. The issue of ensuring an adequate water supply is raised during elections and makes it’s way into political consciousness annually as residents voice concerns about the amount of water industry is using. Growing communities, agriculture and industry compete for a finite resource across the Northeast.

A new effluent treatment facility funded by Shell, and due to break ground this summer, won’t be in time to deal with the projected water shortages for the coming season, however, sustainability is about long term planning Bernier reminds people.

This plan will ease the pinch and is projected to be operational as early as spring 2011, providing more available water, financial savings and added revenue to the City of Dawson Creek and its taxpayers.

“Our area is just continuing to boom and we’re continuing to need more water. Because of the amount of oil and gas activity in our area, almost 20 per cent of the water that goes through our treatment plant is sold in bulk out to the oil and gas industry for fraccing and their purposes,” said Bernier.

Not wanting to say no and inhibit industrial growth, city council discussed options and hit upon the idea to recycle their effluent water. There is one European location doing something similar but this is a North American first, said Bernier.

“We looked into it a little further and found out it was going to be about $10-million project to build another settling lagoon to treat the water to a WorkSafeBC standard and the City of Dawson Creek…didn’t have $10 million,” said Bernier.

Half a dozen companies responded to the city’s request for proposals, among them a proposal from Shell to cover all the costs with an anticipated $9.7 million for the necessary infrastructure. That proposal “exceeded our expectations”, said Bernier and after being accepted early April, negotiations to formalize the details began immediately.

As an added bonus, after claiming what they need for their own use, Shell will allow the city to sell whatever surplus is produced to other companies. With about 4,000 cubic metres of effluent discharged daily, that leaves the city in a position of generating revenues in the neighbourhood of $500,000 annually.

The treatment facility will provide the additional level of processing needed to improve safety from the level currently required for discharge back into the environment, to what’s needed for field use by industry.

This cooperative approach is, only a few days after the proposal was accepted, already generating interest from other municipalities, said Bernier.

“Industry uses a lot of water so we’re hoping that it’s something that will catch on. There’s probably lots of communities, lots of regions, out there that are in a similar situation that might be able to look at this as an idea that can help them out as well.”

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Technology has changed our expectations of information gathering. People are now accustomed to assuming that whatever they need to know is just a click or two away – but that isn’t always the case.

What do you do when you need to know if there is a market for your new product or whether your hours of operation are the right ones or if your employees are being provided with the kind of management support that works for them?

If your operation is fairly small, that task can be as simple as asking people when you see them, but what if that’s not your situation?

Some businesses can easily make survey material available to customers but then there’s the issue of designing the survey and then dealing with all that data entry and finally, formulating some way to analyze the results.

The art of designing and interpreting surveys can be complicated and like so many similar things, has become an industry unto itself.  From relatively simple market studies to more complex projects, the information gathering process can be critical in defining some aspect of a company’s development or operations and so necessity has produced skilled professionals that can jump in to take on the task.

It takes a special kind of understanding to design a survey that will generate meaningful information but in many instances, the information required doesn’t justify hiring a potentially costly professional. Even if it’s worth the money, time might be a factor and a good DIY alternative might be a better option.

In true Information Age style, the solution, if not the information itself, might actually be just a click away.

If you have questions and know who you want to answer them, Survey Monkey has designed a user-friendly site to help you get the information you need. It may not have a lot of bells and whistles, but it does the job for neophytes as well as seasoned surveyors.

Winning the 2008 Best Quality/Value Award for Online Survey Software, the company boasts users that include “100 per cent of the Fortune 100” as well as other businesses, academic institutions, and organizations of all shapes and sizes”. With uses ranging from customer satisfaction and employee performance reviews, to course evaluations, event planning and research of all types, this site has been popping up more and more often.

Started in 1999 by Ryan Finley and brother, Chris Finley, Survey Monkey remained relatively unknown until the last few. Then it all changed. With revenues in the neigbourhood of $45 million last year, they seem to have finally hit on something that works.

With clear tutorials that guide you step by step, this site provides all the basics to get anyone started and, if you have less than 10 questions and expect fewer than 100 responses, the service is free.

You do need to formulate your own questions, however, with 15 styles of questions to choose from, and a survey editor to guides the process, even that is relatively easy and an unbranded survey can be completed in less than 30 minutes.
Options are provided for how and what data is collected and for how long. Easy access to real time results lets users view individual responses or a summery of the results. Users can chose to send email with a link to their survey, send invitations to reply through Survey Monkey, or have the survey accessible through their own website.

There is even the option to randomize questions to address the issue of bias.

For a nominal fee, about $20 a month, users can upgrade to the professional plan or for those who are likely to want an ongoing flow of information, the unlimited plan costs about $200 a year. And yes, they are accessible to the Canadian market.

Upgraded services include the capacity to start with a variety of templates, produce longer surveys, generate more responses, add a company logo and download the results.

While it might not be for everyone, Survey Monkey is a low cost alternative that can make information gathering less daunting and, since even the basic service allows for an unlimited number of surveys, an easy to integrate part of any business plan.

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Petroleum is a risky business but some risks are optional says a Grande Prairie man. While Worldwide Matrix Inc.’s Allan Gallant doesn’t claim his Early Warning System can eliminate all the risks, he has developed a product he says can alert people to potentially devastating washouts.

“If I can stop you from having an emergency shutdown, just think of the money you’re going to save,” said Gallant.

Every time there’s a washout, it costs someone something – and that something isn’t always money. The uncontrolled gas release can have steep environmental costs and, more importantly, can be potentially lethal to workers and nearby residents, said Gallant. It only takes one leak.

“I want you to know it’s out there…If someone get’s hurt, is it worth the $400? I can guarantee you it’s going to be,” he added.

It’s not something anyone wants to happen, but it does. Steel, however strong, can be worn away by the violent actions inside pipes. Working with production testing for many years, Gallant noticed issues with the sand fracs eroding pipe. The sand in the flow eats away at the elbows due to turbulence at the 90 degree turns in the piping from the wellhead to the separator, he explained. His solution is targeted at that vulnerable point.

“Steel was invented in the 19th century and it hasn’t changed since. This is a change for steel – for the elbow itself,” said Gallant.

Conceptualized by inventor Marcel Menard in 2003, the journey to market has taken five years, several prototypes and $400,000. The potential return on that investment, said Gallant, is priceless.

It’s not a complicated idea but the addition of this new standard of elbow fitting is one Gallant and his partners are betting will eliminate the need for many panic-driven emergency shutdowns and everything implicit in them.

The industry has safety testing however, Gallant said, the existing protocols can only go so far. He points out that the random nature of that testing can miss the target despite the best intentions and that means breaches that his product can detect – every time, all the time.

In field tests the system performed as predicted 100 per cent of the time over 100 tests, Gallant boasts.

A matrix of boreholes surrounding the central chamber provide an early warning for potential breaches and while the product was developed for the oil and gas industry, its use is by no means limited to that application.  The warning can be provided through computers, sensors or gauges; whatever the client wants.

Ultimately, welding caused manufacturing problems in their prototypes and the switch was made to forged pieces.

Currently Matrix has about 800 pieces ready for use in production testing and is working on the certification of a piece for oil company sites.

Was the research and development process worth it? Gallant isn’t sure.

“It’s been an interesting journey and the journey is just about to come to a head…it’s time,” said Gallant. With interest from oil and gas companies as well as organizations like BC’s Oil and Gas Commission, Worldwide Matrix is poised to do nothing less than take the world by storm. It might be a simple idea but Gallant is hoping this simple idea will also be revolutionary.

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Air cards, turbosticks, Internet sticks, .. whatever you call them, these devices are universally useful to tap into the Internet from remote sites. Being in the field used to mean questionable cell phone coverage and zero chance of Internet access. Now, with the increase in cell phone tower coverage and the advent of aircards, working online is becoming possible from almost any far-flung location.

The sticks connect to computers via a USB port, and utilize cell phone networks for their signals. How well they work in a given area is entirely a function of distance from cell phone towers. Competition is tight between the two main Peace Country service providers – Bell and Telus – so, it’s worthwhile for consumers to delve into the different plans and products offered by each company.

As owner of virtually all the cell phone towers in the Peace, Telus has the largest coverage footprint and is in the best position to provide fast mobile Internet service. That said, Bell is in the same position: in exchange for a leasing fee, Bell includes their network equipment on Telus towers throughout BC and Alberta.

Switching between computers is not a problem with aircards – all come with installation software built in, rendering the hassle of installation CDs utterly obsolete – at least for PC users.

To understand what you’re getting when buying an aircard, it’s important to know the language of mobile Internet: to have a chance of seeing high data transfer speeds, an aircard must be used within a  high speed packet access (HSPA) coverage area, also referred to as a 3G+ network. HSPA is a step up from code division multiple access (CDMA) networks – also known as third generation (3G) networks.

Given full reception, the HSPA networks can offer download speeds upwards of 21.1 megabits per second (Mbps), and upload speeds of up to 5.7 Mbps. These numbers place the HSPA networks light years ahead of the 3G networks, and allow a user to engage in Web 2.0 applications such as listening to streaming audio and browsing online videos. But there’s a catch – one typically had to be within 30 kilometres of a cell phone tower to get good reception (meaning three bars or more) on an HSPA network.

When it comes to using aircards remotely, it pays to use the slightly older 3G (CDMA) technology, which will work off of cell phone towers as far as 80 kilometres away. But this older technology cranks out just 500 to 800 kilobits per second, making it useful for text-only applications such as sending and receiving e-mail. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let the comparison begin:


Telus offers two aircards in the Peace: the Sierra Wireless 306 and Huawei E182E cards. Both are meant for HSPA networks, but can also serve CDMA networks.

Huawei Technologies, China’s biggest telecoms equipment manufacturer, makes the towers that run Telus’ entire cell phone network. For this reason, many Telus customers tend to place their trust in the Huawei cards rather than the Sierra sticks.

For more remote areas, the old dependable Sierra Wireless 598 stick (offered by both Telus and Bell) is most commonly used. Telus’ HSPA network covers the densely populated areas of the Peace, but Chetwynd, Hudson’s Hope and Tumbler Ridge are on the fringe of its service area. Even CDMA coverage in these places has been spotty at times, but many towers are now being upgraded to serve HSPA networks.

Telus no longer charges a separate system access fee – it’s now rolled into the rate plans. The consensus amongst cellular phone dealers is that this isn’t merely a repackaging of the costs, but actually does work out to better deals for the customer.


Bell has two aircards available in the Peace: the Novatel Wireless U998 for HSPA and CDMA networks, and the Novatel U950, primarily meant for CDMA networks. A handy feature of Bell’s aircards is the way in which they log session data, making it simple to track the accumulation of your data usage throughout the month.

Bell also offers a unique product available to those within an HSPA coverage area: the Novatel Wireless MiFi 2352. The portable Internet hotspot about the size of a credit card, which allows up to five devices within a short range to connect to the Internet.

Due to their tower-sharing arrangement, Bell customers end up paying a slightly higher system access fee than do Telus customers.

…and a note about Rogers

In the Peace, there’s simply no benefit to using a Rogers aircard. With HSPA coverage areas to urban centres in most provinces, Rogers has just a single tower north of Dawson Creek to serve the entire BC Peace. While they have several more towers within the Alberta Peace, the consensus remains that their network cannot compare to those of Telus and Bell outside highly populated areas. That could change in three to four years, as Rogers is slated to construct more towers.

Across Canada, Rogers is a player of significance, and has spurred competition that’s been beneficial to consumers in the Peace. Through a business practice known as “competitive response”, Telus reacted within days after Rogers reduced their 5 gigabyte (GB) data rate plans from $85 to $65 in March.

Telus consumers throughout BC and Alberta now get the same deal.

Some drawbacks

Coverage in rural areas remains a big issue with aircards. One solution is to employ a cell phone booster, which provides an extra 3 watts of power – usually more than enough. And the future holds the promise of better connectivity: Telus will be upgrading to a 4G network within the next two to three years, which should guarantee minimum transfer speeds of 21.1 megabytes per second in those coverage areas.

The cost of downloading is still a major limitation on aircards. All aircards base their monthly plans around data usage, with the highest plan available on any network being 5 GB of data per month, and surcharges beyond that data limit (usually at about $0.05 per megabyte) can add up quickly. For someone who makes a habit out of downloading large files, air cards might not the answer.

In order to benefit from data usage plans, it helps to be a business owner: registering an account in a business name allows one to access double the data usage for the same price.

The best time to buy, particularly for those looking to transfer large amounts of data, will be prior to the next school year. With telecommunications companies keeping an eye on the download-intensive habits of the younger generation, back-to-school specials may include the best deals yet on high data packages. Those might be available by July, and could possibly include an unlimited data plan.

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