Feature

Boom

What happens when you take on the gas industry—and your neighbours—in a small British Columbia town

Photography by Grant Harder
On the rocks Liz Biggar was fired last year from her job at an environmental organization in Fort Nelson, BC.

In early September 2011, a few hundred people gathered in a newly built community centre in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, to hear a speech by Ezra Levant, the controversial Sun News anchor and pundit. Levant has written two books—Groundswell: The Case for Fracking and Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands—defending the Canadian fossil-fuel sector; the Harper government has since taken up his “ethical oil” banner. His was the keynote speech at the annual BC Oil and Gas Conference, and it argued many of the same points found in those books. The Alberta oil sands, he told the largely sympathetic audience, are the most ethical choice for North American consumers. Major oil and gas exporters such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Russia are all autocratic petro-states, whereas Canada is a democracy; in any case, there are currently no viable alternatives for fuel, or for petrochemical-derived products such as makeup, clothing, and plastics.

The conference was held in Fort Nelson that year because the natural-gas boom stands to transform the small town—and others like it. If all goes as the provincial government plans, huge amounts of gas will be extracted in northeastern BC, pipelined to facilities on the coast, and transported to Asia on massive ships. In the span of just a few years, tiny, isolated communities such as Fort Nelson will morph from bit players in the North American energy market into international production hubs.

Fossil-fuel development is perennially controversial, and in his speech that day Levant used a character, “Zoe,” to describe a typical opponent. Zoe, according to Levant’s characterization, is a young Canadian environmentalist and vegetarian concerned about tanker traffic on the West Coast. She worships David Suzuki and reads his articles uncritically over her local café’s Wi-Fi. Naively, Zoe is not aware that oil tankers are already present on the coast and have been for a long time.

In presentations, Levant pairs this description with an image of a white woman with brown hair who holds her chin in her hands as she stares quizzically into the middle distance. “You’re never going to convince Vladimir Putin or the king of Saudi Arabia to like the oil sands, because they’re a competitor to the oil sands,” Levant says in an interview, explaining why he created the character. “But you can persuade a Zoe by saying, Look, Zoe, until we invent this fantasy fuel of the future that’s perfect in every way, we’re going to be using oil and gas. Would you rather get your oil from Canada or Saudi Arabia? ”

Near the back of the Northern Rockies Regional Recreation Centre conference room, Liz Biggar—a local brown-haired environmentalist and vegetarian who opposes oil and gas development—was having a hard time listening to Levant’s rhetoric about Zoe. After Levant wrapped up his speech, he took a few softball questions. Then Biggar stood up. “First of all,” she said, “nothing about oil is ethical.” She went on to make points about climate change, famine in Africa, and the difference between current and projected tanker traffic.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Levant responded, “I present to you: Zoe.”

Prior to the event, Biggar had never heard of Levant, who is notorious for his dismissive debating style. “He had no retort, no nothing,” she tells me. “He just made fun of me.” Levant, though, is unapologetic. “It was like she’d been sent from central casting,” he says, reflecting on the incident. “I think someone there might have even thought I set it up.” In the conference room, Levant asked Biggar how she’d gotten to the event, and Biggar said she’d driven her truck. She had partnered with conference organizers to transport the event’s food scraps to a local pig farm. “He said, ‘That’s a fun hobby you have, Zoe,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘You think about the oil the next time you drive your truck around.’ ”

Biggar had been the eco-adviser for an organization called the Northern Environmental Action Team for almost two years. As NEAT’s inaugural representative in Fort Nelson, Biggar initiated the town’s first recycling program and started environmental stewardship education in schools; she also partnered with energy companies to run roadside cleanups and an annual tree planting day. Around town, her recycling efforts earned her an affectionate nickname: Tin Lizzy.

Still, Biggar’s run-in with Levant was typical of her ambivalent working relationship with Fort Nelson. Some oil and gas executives told her she was brave to confront him publicly, and a month after the conference ConocoPhillips even teamed up with NEAT on an LED-light exchange. A friend of Biggar’s, who asked that her name not be used, says it takes courage to criticize oil and gas in Fort Nelson. “If you speak out, if you offend the wrong people,” she says, “then you will get pushed out.”

In fact, behind the scenes, Biggar’s outspokenness became a strike against her in her role as NEAT’s eco-adviser—and, allegedly, one of the reasons she was fired two years later.

Photograph by Grant Harder
Letting off steam Processing plants in northern BC prepare liquefied natural gas for transport to the coast.

Fort Nelson, the largest community in the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, is situated in the northeast corner of British Columbia, just a few hours south of the province’s borders with Yukon and Northwest Territories. There are two ways to reach it: by plane, via a small airport, or by the winding Alaska Highway, which runs more than 2,200 kilometres from Delta Junction, Alaska, to Dawson Creek, near the Alberta border. On the long stretch between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, the highway twists around natural-gas camps—Wonowon, Pink Mountain, Buckinghorse—before skirting the northern Rockies. At the Wonowon gas station, you can get everything from fried chicken to winter coats to liquor, trail mix, and hunting caps. The main road, Highway 97, spurs off into various mud and gravel paths that lead out to rigs, wells, and field plants. The farther north you get, the shorter the trees are—aspen, birch, and swaths of beetle-decimated pine.

Fort Nelson feels like a northern town. Outside the core, the roads transition quickly from pavement to gravel. Much of the housing stock tilts toward semi-permanence: prefab trailer homes with Tyvek paper showing around the windows are everywhere. Fort Nelson sits atop the Horn River Basin, and close to the Liard Basin—two of the province’s key areas for unconventional natural-gas development. Forty-four percent of the working population is employed in the oil and gas sector. (Although there isn’t much oil to speak of in BC, northerners refer to the industry in that conjoined way—“oil and gas”—which speaks to the long shadow cast here by Albertan companies.) Everything, from the rec centre to NEAT to the local sports teams, receives support from the industry; a donation plaque in the entrance of the rec centre gives equal billing to the province, the federal government, Encana, Mayor Bill Streeper, and Black Diamond, a company that builds work camps. Almost everyone I spoke to told me the same thing: this town would not exist were it not for oil and gas.

The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality accounts for nearly 10 percent of BC’s land mass, but only 0.1 percent of its population. The municipality’s demographics are unusual: its official population hovers around 5,000, and its median age, thirty-four, is eight years lower than the province’s. The median annual household income of $86,470 is about $26,000 higher than that of the rest of BC. This, however, is only what the NRRM has been able to capture in demographic snapshots. During peak periods of gas exploration and production, it has a fly-in, fly-out population that Streeper estimates to be as high as 3,000—workers who make their permanent homes elsewhere, but come for shifts in the shale-gas basins.

Gas is expected to be a boon to British Columbia, much as the tar sands have been to Alberta. BC has always relied heavily on natural resources to drive its economy; forestry used to be among the province’s largest industries, but the 2007 collapse of the US housing market, coupled with a devastating pine-beetle infestation, severely reduced its viability. In Fort Nelson, the 2008 closure of the town’s two biggest sawmill plants coincided with the announcement that the energy industry was poised to make a significant investment in shale-gas development in the region. The sawmill plants employed more than 400 people, many of whom were able to transition to working in natural gas. In the whole province, about 29,500 people—just under 1 percent of the population—work in the extractive industries, according to WorkBC, the government’s employment service. In the 2013–14 fiscal year, oil and gas revenues totalled about $1.3 billion.

Of course, also like Alberta’s tar sands, BC’s natural-gas development has its detractors. For the last several years, in the geographic centre of the province, the Unist’ot’en Aboriginal group has maintained a soft blockade, occupying its own land with a permanent camp. It will not consent to oil or gas pipelines crossing its territory. The Nadleh Whut’en First Nation and the Nak’azdli band recently took legal action after the province approved a TransCanada gas pipeline; they alleged that the government’s duty to consult them was not fulfilled. Groups such as Greenpeace, the Dogwood Initiative, and the David Suzuki Foundation have all been campaigning against natural gas extraction, and some mayors—including Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson and Burnaby’s Derek Corrigan—have publicly taken stands against encroachments by oil and gas companies on their municipalities’ lands and waterways.

BC has been developing shale gas in the northeast since the mid-twentieth century, but it’s only since the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or so-called fracking, as well as the development of technology that liquefies natural gas for shipping, that the fossil fuel has established its potential as a profitable export. Opponents of this type of gas production have far-ranging worries, including concerns about the cumulative environmental impacts of gas, mining, and forestry; the amount of water used in fracking; and the possibility of water contamination.

But production in BC continues. In the coming years, companies such as Petronas, Chevron, Apache, and Nexen will extract shale gas in northeastern BC, where deposits are rich and accessible. The gas will then be transported to Kitimat, on the coast, where it will be processed and shipped overseas. There are eighteen large-scale liquefied natural gas plants in development; one of these projects, Kitimat LNG, is forecasted to bring in up to $39 billion in tax revenue for the province. In northeastern BC, natural gas extraction will need to keep pace with the development of the plants on the coast, and the governing Liberals are predicting the creation of up to 100,000 jobs in the industry. (BC’s official opposition, the NDP, has challenged these rosy projections.) LNG is the cornerstone of the government’s economic plans, and natural gas is increasingly pitting British Columbians against each other in the battle for the province’s environmental future. Fort Nelson may be just a remote town in the far northeast, but the dispute there—between Biggar, an environmentalist from the Lower Mainland, and an industry-friendly community—is an apt stand-in for BC’s hopes and anxieties.

Liz Biggar first moved to Fort Nelson twelve years ago. At twenty-five, she’d come home from a four-year stint in California and was trying to decide what to do next. A friend of hers who worked at a mill in Fort Nelson offered her a place to stay, and encouraged her to apply at Dan’s Neighbourhood Pub. “My friend said these girls are making $700 to $1,000 a night,” she explains. “And it’s because the men would be in camp and they’d come out of the camp, out of the bush, out of the oil patch, out of the mill, and they would have thousands of dollars.” Biggar used money from waiting tables to buy a house in Fort Nelson, which she still owns and rents out to gas workers.

Born and raised in White Rock, just south of Vancouver, Biggar was surprised when she moved up north and discovered that Fort Nelson had no recycling program. But she didn’t consider herself an environmentalist then. Her introduction to environmental activism came after working at Dan’s for a few years and being amazed by how much money changed hands. Biggar says that, in one month, she and three friends raised $30,000 to sponsor the building of two homes for street children in Uganda. “I talk a lot about my community in a negative light,” she says, “but when people need help, it really comes together. Most of the money was raised at the pub. We put a jar out, and people would come in, drinking, with so much money, and say, I want to buy the bricks for the house. Here’s $800.”

When Biggar returned from Africa, she turned her attention to recycling. “Most people threw their bottles in the garbage,” she says. “You’d see cases and cases of pop, water bottles, beer bottles, in the garbage all the time.” So Biggar set up a washing, sorting, and storing facility in her basement. The work was dirty, but she raised almost $10,000 to support the project in Uganda. Eventually, Fort Nelson approached her to formalize the bottle donation program; two large blue boxes were installed in high-traffic public areas to facilitate the donation and recycling. Eventually, the program got so big that it left her basement and was taken up by local charities.

At the same time, the Northern Environmental Action Team, based four hours south in Fort St. John, was looking to expand into neighbouring communities, and opened up shop in Dawson Creek, Hudson’s Hope, Chetwynd, and Fort Nelson. The social pressure from new residents of Fort Nelson—families who’d moved north from towns and cities where environmental initiatives were the norm—led the NRRM to contribute funding to the organization, which was founded in 1989. Following the accidental success of Biggar’s recycling efforts, NEAT asked her to run its programs in Fort Nelson. “I said no three times,” she says. “I knew what a challenge it would be. It’s very different thinking up there.” Eventually, though, NEAT won her over. Despite having very little formal training, Biggar became a NEAT’s eco-adviser in January 2010.

For the duration of her four years with NEAT, Biggar worked hand-in-hand with the oil and gas industry on recycling projects. While the bulk of NEAT’s funding in Fort Nelson came from the NRRM, companies such as Encana, ConocoPhillips, and Nexen supplemented that funding and programming. Angela White, Encana’s community-relations adviser, partnered with Biggar for annual roadside cleanups, Arbor Day, and a clothing drive. White says Biggar is the type of person who doesn’t back down from a challenge. “She’s very passionate about what she does,” she says. “With the recycling that she pretty much started in this town, there were so many obstacles in her way. She still found a way to make it work.” But Biggar now sees NEAT’s relationship with industry in a more cynical light. “Nexen gave us money for the recycling program,” she says. “They bought blue bins for every classroom, which was amazing. It helped all the schools start recycling paper. So we’d go into every classroom, give a blue bin, give a presentation, and at the end of it I’d be like, Okay, everyone thank Nexen, thank our friend Nexen! It’s totally greenwashing, but that’s what we did.”

One project that Biggar started on her own, with the support of NEAT and a team of volunteers, was a monthly recycling roundup. This time, instead of focusing on cans and bottles, Biggar expanded the list of materials that could be collected. People were willing to save their tin, cardboard, plastic, paper, and other recyclables, and bring them out in sub-zero winter temperatures, all so they could divert waste from the landfill. For her efforts, Biggar received multiple nominations for community leader of the year. In 2013, her work in Fort Nelson contributed to NEAT’s receipt of the Non-Profit Achievement Award from the Recycling Council of British Columbia.

Photograph by Grant Harder

Bill Streeper, the mayor of Fort Nelson, is one of the biggest local boosters of liquefied natural gas. His family moved to the area just after World War II, and there are signs of the Streepers everywhere, sometimes literally: A sign for Streeper Kennels, run by Bill’s nephew, hangs in the visitor centre. An antique Streeper Brothers Marine Transport sign is mounted on a wooden pole across the street in the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum, where you can also spot another of Bill’s relatives, Pat, posing in a postwar softball team photo.

Streeper, who sold his oil-field company, Streeper Contracting, in 2006, describes himself as “semi-retired”; he ran for mayor and has retained some involvement in the energy industry because he wants to see his town prosper. For more than two hours, Streeper walks me through the way the industry works in the northeast—everything from the geological development of natural gas deposits to production, environmental regulations, seismic activity, and water use. His knowledge comes from decades of experience in the business; he worked as a contractor with Encana for years. “Everybody on this side of the highway is a hundred percent dependent on oil and gas,” he says. “These people—their whole life, right now—is depending on LNG.”

Streeper has sometimes tangled with those who are apprehensive about the pace and scope of energy development. In spring 2014, the Fort Nelson First Nation held a conference about LNG, to which they invited provincial representatives and First Nations governments from across Canada. In an interview, former chief Sharleen Gale describes the conference as an opportunity to have an “open and frank dialogue” about First Nations involvement in LNG decisions concerning their traditional lands. But the week of the conference, the provincial government made an order-in-council to exempt most “sweet gas” plants from environmental assessment. That decision, says Gale, was not consistent with the values of the Fort Nelson First Nation. On the second day of the conference, she took the podium and asked the representatives from the province to leave. She held an eagle feather up to the sky while members of the First Nation drummed and sang, and the government delegates filtered out of the room.

Though he was not present, Streeper made headlines by issuing a public apology. “If LNG fails,” he told the Globe and Mail, “this town will fail.” The First Nation was furious; it is its own government, outside Streeper’s jurisdiction. In person, Streeper softens this sentiment by acknowledging that the town benefits in small ways from agriculture, forestry, and tourism. But his focus is still oil and gas—in the sense that Fort Nelson’s economy needs it, as does the average consumer. “Don’t take this ignorantly,” he says. “Do you know what you’d look like if I took all the petroleum products off your body? What’s your shirt or your buttons made out of? Your underwear? What about the spandex? ”

The Fort Nelson First Nation is less sure. “Without First Nations consent—and it is consent—LNG is not going to happen,” says Lana Lowe, the community’s lands director. The NRRM covers 85,000 square kilometres, nearly all of which is part of the nation’s traditional territories. “Oil and gas is a huge concern for us because it’s going to open up our landscape—roads, seismic lines, well pads, you name it,” says Gale. “It’s a spiderweb out there, and it’s very concerning to our people when they’re out there on the land. Our elders always tell us to take care of the land, and the land will take care of us.”

During my conversation with Gale and Lowe, the word livelihood comes up several times. It’s applied both to the land, as the livelihood of the Dene people, and to the First Nation’s involvement with gas development, in terms of business participation and individual band member employment. The community runs an oil field–construction company called Eh Cho Dene, which employs more than 300 people. Like a lot of residents of northern BC, they are in a bind: they crave the economic opportunity that LNG brings, but fear its potential adverse effects on the province’s famously beautiful natural places. “We have a responsibility,” says Gale, “to strike a balance between environmental stewardship and jobs for our people.”

After the incident with Ezra Levant, Biggar continued to speak out against the oil and gas industry; in 2012, she supported Keepers of the Water, a First Nations conference critical of fracking that was held in Fort Nelson. In a community heavily reliant on energy development, that kind of dissent is controversial. The executive director of NEAT, Dzengo Mzengeza, wrote Biggar a pre-termination letter on January 29, 2014, which noted that her public comments about her “personal views on fracking” would be part of the grounds for her dismissal. Streeper himself contacted Mzengeza twice, according to the letter, “asking why a NEAT person was making negative comments in public about businesses who were operating legally.”

NEAT’s reliance on the municipality puts it in a difficult position. Though it is an independent organization, most of its operating budget in Fort Nelson comes from the NRRM. NEAT has received other in-kind support from the community, such as the donation of space for recycling projects, as well as office space and equipment in the city hall building in Fort Nelson. At a meeting with the mayor in 2013, Mzengeza writes, the executive director was told that “several business people” had approached Streeper to criticize the municipality’s funding of NEAT. (Mzengeza declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Biggar’s second strike, according to Mzengeza’s letter, involved an apparent incident of public drunkenness on Canada Day 2013. Two bicycle mechanics had flown up to Fort Nelson to teach workshops and help fix a fleet of donated bikes. In the letter, Mzengeza says the mechanics missed their flight home because Biggar was “not available” to take them to the airport. “It was a mistake,” Biggar says. “It wasn’t very professional. But it was on my own time.”

Biggar’s third strike came in January 2014, in the form of a Facebook message she posted about stray cats and dogs. Biggar is an animal lover; her two dogs, Burt and France, accompany her everywhere. With its small population and isolated location, Fort Nelson doesn’t have an SPCA, or any other kind of shelter one might find on the Lower Mainland. Instead, the town grants a contract to Terry Streeper, the mayor’s nephew, who runs the local pound; he and his son are award-winning sled-dog racers and breeders. When Fort Nelson’s dogcatcher rounds up stray animals, they are brought to Streeper’s pound, which acts as a temporary shelter until they are reclaimed.

Biggar says she heard a rumour about the way the pound euthanized animals; she posted a note on Facebook, calling for a meeting at a local coffee shop to talk about euthanasia and the problem of unwanted animals in Fort Nelson. While many people left supportive comments on the post, there was also an immediate backlash. Kim Eglinski, a regional councillor who was acting mayor at the time (Bill Streeper was away), collected screenshots of Biggar’s posts and sent them to staff at city hall, who in turn alerted Mzengeza. “Liz has got a heart of gold, she’s got tenacity, she’s passionate,” says Eglinski. “I don’t know what happened between Liz and NEAT. I honestly believe Liz was ill equipped. I believe NEAT could have given her a lot more training in public relations, in social media etiquette, and they didn’t.”

Mzengeza flew to Fort Nelson from Fort St. John a few days later. According to Biggar, he told her that she needed to make a decision: resign from her position as NEAT’s eco-adviser or be fired. After Mzengeza left Fort Nelson, Biggar travelled to Calgary to collect her thoughts and be near her family. She decided to stand her ground. On February 2, she told Mzengeza that she refused to resign. The next day, she was terminated.

Bill Streeper acknowledges that Biggar’s outspokenness, particularly her opposition to the oil and gas industry, is ultimately what got her fired. “I said to Dzengo—and this was actually why she was released from her job—I said to him, Even though she is stating her personal views, people in certain positions represent the organization that employs them,” Streeper says. “And if you have your representative standing up against major issues in a community that the people support, it’s going to create friction.”

When I ask Streeper if the municipality’s funding to NEAT would have been in jeopardy if Biggar remained on staff, he says no. But Mzengeza, in his letter to Biggar, says NEAT’s presentation to council for 2014 funding, which had been slated for two days earlier, had been cancelled because a city hall employee “didn’t think that we stood any chance of getting approval for our funding” after Biggar’s posts about euthanasia. In February, even after NEAT hired an interim eco-adviser to replace Biggar, Bill Streeper voted against renewing the funding. He was one of only two council members to do so.

Although at first glance Biggar’s firing seems like just another small-town controversy, it raises real questions about resource extraction and environmental activism in BC. In a text message to Biggar, one of her former bosses at NEAT described the situation as a “bite the hand that feeds you” sort of thing. As British Columbia doubles down on natural gas, will green organizations feel compelled to avoid addressing fossil fuels’ environmental effects for fear of losing their funding?

Biggar, meanwhile, has moved on. After she was fired, she went to Vancouver, where she began looking for work and volunteering. She also joined the protests on Burnaby Mountain, the potential future site of a controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline that would carry oil from Edmonton to BC refineries. She was arrested twice, but a judge later threw out all charges against the demonstrators, after it was revealed that Kinder Morgan made errors in its GPS coordinates for the injunction zone around the site. After dominating headlines for months, Burnaby Mountain has become yet another flashpoint in the battle for British Columbia’s soul. “It’s just overwhelming how many projects are going on right now,” Biggar says. “It’s all the same fight.”

Photograph by Grant Harder
Industry town Forty-four percent of the working population of Fort Nelson is employed in the oil and gas sector.

On my last day in Fort Nelson, I accompany a BC Oil and Gas Commission employee on a visit to the Horn River Basin production area. After travelling northwest for about an hour, we leave the paved highways for gravel access roads. Like many residents of Fort Nelson, the OGC employee, who asked that I not use his name, used to work in forestry. (I reached out to many people in the town; most declined to speak with me or allow me to use their names.) As we drive farther into the bush, he alternates between detailing the technical processes behind gas extraction and describing the muskeg, the spruce, and the pine. He points out a grouse as it darts into the brush.

The roads we travel used to be leased and managed by forestry giant Canfor, which ran the two sawmills in Fort Nelson. Now, they are leased and managed by Apache, and have undergone significant improvements in order to accommodate the transportation of heavy equipment. The OGC is responsible for overseeing everything: the roads themselves, the water allowances, the drilling and fracking permits. We pass a few rigs in various stages of production, then stop to take a look at a dehydration facility—a series of pipes, tanks, and buildings that process water out of the gas before it is sent south to a much larger plant, which removes carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.

Eventually, we stop for coffee at an open camp. It consists of a series of Built-Rite trailers linked to form a square of four corridors, as well as a few other buildings and an incinerator to burn the camp garbage. Everyone is required to remove their boots, hard hats, and coveralls at the entrance. Some shift workers are sleeping; others are eating soup and grilled cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria. It’s pin-drop quiet but full of people, mostly men. It takes me a little while to find a one-stall bathroom, without urinals, where I can actually close the door.

The OGC employee and I return to the truck and make our way back out of the field. Driving back, I’m struck, on one hand, with how banal this tour has been—I’d been picturing constant gas flares and some version of Edward Burtynsky’s oil-sands photography. The relative calm of the Horn River Basin comes as a surprise. On the other hand, it is notable just how many arterial and spur roads snake their way through the muskeg, making way for well pads, water reservoirs, camps, and field facilities. From the highway, the bush is thick and the trees lean in toward the road, creating the impression that you’re isolated in a vast expanse—the Rockies to the west, unbroken forest to the east. But this is a city person’s vision of wilderness. The truth is that, even now, before the boom has really set in, the land is spotted, criss-crossed with gas development.

This appeared in the March 2015 issue.

Andrea Bennett has written for The Atlantic, Adbusters, and The Tyee.

Grant Harder won an Applied Arts award for the April 2013 cover of enRoute.