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Northern Alberta county grapples with natural gas shortage

Faced with a natural gas shortage, Mackenzie County in northwest Alberta is calling on the government to help fund a new pipeline to feed homes and businesses in its remote communities.

Steady growth outstripping natural gas capacity in Mackenzie County communities, county officials say

The remote northwest Alberta hamlet of La Crete, surrounded by farmland and forest, is one of the communities in Mackenzie County struggling with a natural gas shortage. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

When families in the remote northern Alberta communities of Mackenzie County build homes, many insist on wood stoves and propane tanks.

Steady population growth over the past decade is outstripping the capacity of the natural gas system to heat homes and businesses, and the shortage has become so severe county officials are considering bylaws to prevent new buildings from connecting to the grid.​

To solve the problem, Mackenzie County is calling for a new pipeline to connect another source of natural gas to its system.

"It's not reasonable and we really need to see this happening very soon because otherwise we're not going to continue to grow," said Reeve Peter Braun.

The project is estimated to cost $45 million. A new 65-kilometre pipeline would connect the existing grid to the Wolverine meter station, a natural gas source south of the Mackenzie County hamlet of La Crete.

Northern Lights Gas Co-op, the not-for-profit distributor that supplies the affected area, owns the grid that connects homes, businesses, schools and health centres to natural gas.

The grid includes communities such as La Crete, Buffalo Head Prairie, Paddle Prairie, Keg River and Carcajou. People in those communities faced a state of emergency last winter triggered by outages during a –40 C cold snap.

"Heat in the home is, in our mind, an essential service," John Klassen, vice-chair of the gas co-op, told CBC News. "These projects are large dollar-value projects which a small co-op like ours just can't seem to handle on its own."

Klassen said the co-op is saving for the new pipeline by charging each user an additional $20-per-month fee, and levying a small tax on every kilojoule of natural gas used.

Klassen estimated it will take his company 10 years to save enough money for the proposed pipeline, by which time he said its price tag may have increased.

'It's not a frivolous thing'

Census data shows the county's population has nearly doubled over the past two decades, surpassing 11,000 in 2016. 

Northern Lights Gas Co-op connects an average of 73 new homes to its grid every year. 

Waiting a decade for a pipeline crucial to growth and development in northwest Alberta is unacceptable, said Mackenzie County's chief administrative officer Lenard Racher.

The county is now advocating for provincial funding on behalf of the gas co-op, asking the Alberta government to help pay for the project.

"We're not naive, we know that every community has challenges but we're fighting for our little piece of the pie," Racher said. "If we get this pipeline built here, we're destined to succeed, but without it we're destined to fail."

Mackenzie County wants the province to cover half the pipeline's $45-million cost with a grant and the other half with a low-interest loan.

"It's not a frivolous thing," Racher said. "If we don't act now, we will be in trouble in two to three years. That is an absolute given."

Lenard Racher, chief administrative officer for Mackenzie County, explains why remote northern Alberta communities can't afford to wait any longer for a provincial investment in a new natural gas pipeline. 1:47

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier said he is aware of the natural gas shortage and has had conversations with Mackenzie County officials about short-term and long-term solutions.

"It's a challenge, but the opportunity also is quite great for that area," Carlier told CBC News.

Carlier said he outlined several options in a May 4 teleconference with Racher and Braun, including federal and provincial grant programs, low-interest loans, and investments from agriculture and financial services corporations.

He added the province is focusing on short-term solutions that will ease the shortage for another five to 10 years, before committing to long-term projects such as a new pipeline.

"In that time we'll have an opportunity to continue looking for solutions," Carlier said. "We've got some breathing room in order to do so, but I'm always looking forward to ensure that we can do what we can do."

Industry stagnating

Mackenzie County will likely be passed over for industry opportunities until it can solve its natural gas shortage, said deputy chief administrative officer Byron Peters, who handles the county's economic development projects.

"A bunch of other rural regions are fighting more for improved broadband internet and so forth — we're looking for some of the more fundamentals still, at this point," Peters said.

"That really hampers economic development, especially the ability to attract some of the bigger types of industry."

Peters said he has been forced to turn down business proposals because there is not enough natural gas to support the demands of major development.

Byron Peters, deputy chief administrative officer for Mackenzie County, talks about the challenges of a natural gas shortage faced by remote communities in northwest Alberta. 1:35

Jobs will become scarce as the population continues to boom without a proportional growth in industry, Peters said.

"If the community stagnates it will shrink," Peters said. "If you hamper the growth of rural communities there's a lot of incentive to move to the city. 

"If it comes to the point where you're not confident that your house is going to stay warm, some of those pretty fundamental things, it's pretty easy for people to say why would I live here? Why am I committed to this area? Let's go where it's easy."

Population keeps growing

A study released by the county in 2011 concluded communities connected to the maxed-out natural gas grid will continue to grow.

For instance, the number of people living in the hamlet of La Crete and on its surrounding farmland showed an annual growth of nearly six per cent from 1981 to 2011.

The population in 2011 was 2,400. Based on the average annual rate of growth, the population was predicted to increase by about 1,400 over 20 years, hitting 3,800 by 2031.

Braun said the county wants to keep those people in northwest Alberta.

"If we can't get the support from our provincial government to move this ahead, our young people are going to start moving away because we can't attract any economic development," he said.

"They need to make a living and so they'll start moving away and spread out and then our growth would be slowed down extremely."

Peter Braun, Reeve for Mackenzie County, is calling on the province to help pay for a natural gas pipeline to ease a shortage of the resource in remote northern Alberta communities. 1:27

Northern Lights Gas Co-op is adding two compressors to its grid to increase pressure in the system, which will boost capacity.

The compressors, which are scheduled to be running by the end of the year, are meant to prevent life-threatening outages during northern Alberta's bitterly cold winters, Braun said.

"That will buy us a couple of years of heat so we don't get into these problems again when it gets cold," he said. 

But the compressors are a short-term fix, Braun added. By the mid 2020s, Mackenzie County will again face a severe natural gas shortage if it does not find a long-term solution in the meantime.

"Now's the time to work on that gas line to come in and loop the system because it will be three to five years to get it built and by that time we're going to be in real trouble again," Braun said.

"Real trouble means no heat when it turns to –40 in January."

@ZoeHTodd

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Grande Prairie, Alta., filing videos and stories about the Peace region for web, radio and TV.