'I'm scared for my community': northerners react to cancellation of Pacific NorthWest LNG megaproject

News a liquefied natural gas megaproject in Northern B.C. will not be moving forward prompted fear, joy and resignation among people living in the communities directly affected.

From Fort Nelson to Port Edward, fear and happiness over news export facility will not proceed

Pilot car operator Kristi Leer and her two children, including daughter Rayanne, have had to leave Fort Nelson for the first time in their lives after the promise of an LNG boom for the region failed to materialize. (Kristi Leer)

In September 2016, Kristi Leer was celebrating the federal government's approval of the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which would ship natural gas from near her home in Fort Nelson, B.C., to an export facility on Lelu Island, off the province's North Coast.

"I had goosebumps. I'm so happy," Leer said at the time, adding approval gave people in her hard-hit resource community "something to live for." 

Ten months later that optimism has all but died with news the project will not proceed, a decision company board chair Anuar Taib attributed to "prolonged depressed prices and shifts in the energy industry."

"I'm a little bit scared, honestly," Leer said after the announcement. "I'm scared for my community."

Fort Nelson 'a solid ghost town': mayor

Leer is sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Fort St. John with her two children and her parents. Both she and her father had to leave Fort Nelson in order to find regular work. (Kristi Leer)

Born and raised in the community of under 5,000 people, Leer started operating a pilot car business in 1998. Her fortunes took off in the early 2010s during an oil and gas boom in the region.

Now, she's had to move to Fort St. John in order to receive a steady paycheque, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with her two children and, in a first in her adult life, her parents.

"We couldn't survive in Fort Nelson," she said. "We're separated from our roots."

Of Canadian communities with more than 5,000 people in 2011, Fort Nelson saw the second-fastest decline in the country, shrinking by over eight per cent by 2016 according to Statistics Canada. (Fort Nelson Chamber of Commerce)

While Statistics Canada recorded nearly 500 people leaving the community between 2011 and 2016, Mayor Bill Streeper estimates roughly 1,000 have left in the past year alone.

"Fort Nelson right now is just about a solid ghost town," he said. "We have no industry whatsoever."

While Streeper has hopes for reviving the local forestry industry, the news from Pacific NorthWest confirmed something he has feared for a while. 

"LNG has pretty well died."

Healing wounds

On the other side of the province, meanwhile, news of Pacific Northwest LNG's cancelation was being welcomed by the project's opponents.

Lax Kwa'laams fisherman Ken Lawson has been occupying Lelu Island to keep Pacific Northwest's LNG liquefaction plant and export facility out of a key fish habitat. (George Baker/CBC )

"I'm having a great morning," said Donald Wesley, a hereditary chief representing the Gitwilgyoots tribe of the Lax Kwa'laams. "Everyone is happy."

Wesley is one of the leaders of an occupation of Lelu Island, an important Pacific salmon habitat where the LNG export facility would have been located.

The camp was a flashpoint in the debate over the project, which was supported by leaders of the Metlakatla, Kitsumkalum, Kitselas and Gitxaala First Nations, as well as other members of the Lax Kwa'laams.

Wesley said the debate had taken its toll on his community.

"It was really a dogfight," he said. I don't know if the wounds will heal."

Moving forward without LNG

Others in the northwest expressed more mixed emotions. Amy Rutter of Terrace had once trained to be an electrician and organized a pro-LNG rally in anticipation of an economic boom for the region.

Now, she's working in a mine, having given up on LNG months ago.

The cancelled Pacific Northwest LNG project would have exported natural gas from a terminal on Lelu Island, located at the mouth of the Skeena River, which is B.C.'s second largest salmon-bearing river. (Canadian Press)

"I'm not holding my breath, and no one really even mentions it anymore," she wrote in an email.

Port Edward Mayor Dave MacDonald chose to focus on the benefits LNG speculation had brought to the northwest.

"The company coming in, at least looking at the area, helped us to improve our town," he said.

"We've got eight senior's houses coming to town. We've got the camp for AltaGas just started up here ... we're not going to go away."

MacDonald said he expects his community's future is tied to small economic developments, rather than the LNG megaproject boom that had been promised.

"We're just moving forward," he said. 


With files from Wil Fundal and George Baker

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. Email: andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca | Twitter: @akurjata | Secure PGP: http://www.akurjata.ca

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