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One of the largest regions of British Columbia, the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality is home to some of the country’s busiest oil and gas activity side-by-side with some of the country’s most beautiful backcountry.
Industry, tourism and agriculture all play a strong role in the economic foundation of the area, however, oil and gas is the backbone of the local economy.
The largest centre in the region is Fort Nelson, which is located 400 kilometres north of Fort St. John at mile 300 on the Alaska Highway. A regional population of approximately 6,200 services a landmass making up one tenth of British Columbia, although the seasonally adjusted population has been estimated to be upward of 10,000.
A brand new recreation centre sports duel ice rinks, meeting and fitness rooms, viewing mezzanine, community hall, curling rink and lounge, and a visitors’ centre. Schools, a library and hospital provide other amenities for the local residents.
Both a regional airport and the Alaska Highway provide access for residents, tourists and workers and both are plenty busy transporting people in and out of the area.
It’s estimated than approximately 1,000 tourists go through Fort Nelson on the Alaska Highway each day during the tourist season.
They come for a variety of reasons: the history of the Alaska Highway and the scenic beauty along the route are strong attractions for many of the travellers.
The variety of wildlife is spectacular with an active predator-prey system. You never know what you will find in the backcountry. Hiking, biking, boating, wildlife viewing, ATVing, snowmobiling, fishing, hunting and camping are all bountiful throughout the area and whether it’s a day, a week or a lifetime, there is something for almost everyone drawn to the area.
The tourism sector is taking shape with a new visitors centre in a permanent home for the first time. Up-highway operators may be reduced in number but those that are there are stronger and more established making it easier to travel north on the highway with better guarantees of a room and fuel.
But that’s only one side of the equation and arguably, work brings even more people to the Northern Rockies.
Touted as the largest shale gas field in Canada, the Horn River Basin has opened up the region to unprecedented industrial activity – not without its challenges. Experts estimate that there is about 250 trillion cubic feet of Natural Gas in Northeast BC with about 10-20 per cent being recoverable. Oil has also been discovered giving the region a doubly attractive status.
While the Horn River, like so many other areas in the country, has been impacted by economic and environmental realities in the last few years, the promise that generated so much excitement at it’s discovery has dampened, but not been extinguished.
The airport provides both scheduled and charter flights with charter flights outnumbering scheduled. It’s all about the work and there are six or more 737s arriving everyday with crew changes and other work related travellers.
Companies are continuing to expand to meet the needs of the area and particularly in light of the new technologies necessary to sustain the activity in an environmentally responsible way, are venturing into areas of service that were unimagined only a few years ago.
And regardless of which side of the provincial border a company hails from, one might think there would be enough work for all. Unfortunately, longstanding resentment toward Alberta companies still rears its head. Some claim work is preferentially going to Alberta companies while BC companies don’t get contracts they could manage. Others assert that there is no was local companies could handle either the scope or volume of the work needed given the relatively small local population.
Regardless of where they come from, the remoteness of the region doesn’t deter many from taking advantage of the Northern Rockies generous natural resources.
Located five hours north of Fort St. John, the remote nature of the area is both a boon and a curse. While transportation expenses are high and often increase the cost of doing business, the cost to residents is one of the more reasonable in BC’s northeast with both rental and mortgage costs averaging lower than in the rest of the province.
The majority of lands for development are in the hands of BC’s Integrated Land Management Bureau (ILMB). The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality and ILMB are working together to ensure new land is opened up as quickly as possible – where and when it is needed to provide a sustainable and reasonable growth for the area.
The challenge of course is to provide all the services necessary to such a large area with such a small core population. The establishment of a Regional Municipality was a benefit and with forward thinking approaches to taxation, the municipality has done its part in providing the strongest tax base possible.
The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality’s tax regime links all three classes together creating a level of fairness and predictability in hopes of making the area attractive to investment. The 3.3 Ratio Industrial Rate Policy is endorsed by CEPA and CAPP and so far, industry is continuing to invest.
Housing all the workers continues to be as much of a challenge as it is in other northern locations. A residential housing study done in 2010 identified immediate a need for 150 new properties which would potentially create housing for another 1,000 people. The study looked at needs in terms of population growth rather than a linear timeframe and is considered more accurate than traditional studies.
Everyone both in the municipality and in industry has a stake in the area and more importantly, in the sustainability of the population, the environment and the work. For now, they are finding ways to maintain positive relationships and while some factors are beyond everyone’s control the likelihood is that the region will continue to blend the best of both worlds for years to come.