British Columbia

Plastic production could create jobs as mills shut down in B.C. Interior

A Calgary company wants to build a multi-billion dollar petrochemical facility in Prince George. City leaders hope it helps diversify the local economy as the forestry sector suffers.

West Coast Olefins says proposed facility will create up to 1,000 permanent jobs

Inter Pipeline's Heartland Petrochemical Complex is shown under construction in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. Calgary company West Coast Olefins wants to construct a similar facility in Northern B.C. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

As the forestry sector suffers across B.C., a Calgary-based company is promising to build a $5.6 billion petrochemical facility in Prince George that will create new opportunities for the region.

The recent announcement sparked a mixture of excitement and concern over the economic and environmental impacts of the project.

West Coast Olefins plans to extract natural gas liquids, such as ethane, propane and butane, from an existing liquid natural gas pipeline that runs past the city.

Those byproducts will then be used to make materials like plastic and rubber for Asian markets.

The company has been in discussions with the City of Prince George for several months, and has secured a 300-acre site in the BCR Industrial Area between the downtown core and the airport.

President and CEO Ken James said, if the project moves forward, it will result in up to 1,000 permanent jobs in the community.

West Coast Olefins CEO Ken James says he's encouraged by early meetings with the City of Prince George, the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation and the B.C. government. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

"The best thing for our company is to hire everybody locally," he said. "We've already gotten people from Alberta plants that are originally from Prince George saying 'Hey, we want to come back home.'"

Thousands more workers would also be required during the three-year construction period.

At last week's announcement, James told the crowd — which included the city's mayor and council — that Prince George is an ideal location for this kind of project.

"I look at the educational institutions, the river, the rail, the developed industrial park, and a community that wants the jobs."

Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall called the project a "game changer" for his community, particularly with so much uncertainty about the future of B.C.'s forestry industry.

Over the past three months, hundreds of mill workers around the province have been laid off or had a reduction in shifts.

"What really adds to the diversification of this community, through this project, is employment opportunities," said Hall. "Not just here in Prince George, but throughout the entire region."

West Coast Olefins has also had discussions with the local Lheidli T'enneh First Nation.

West Coast Olefins says it needs support from Prince George residents for its petrochemical project to succeed. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

But there are questions about the environmental impact of the project.

Tim Gray, executive director of the non-profit group Environmental Defence, said petrochemical plants produce waste byproducts. 

"When you're running any kind of refinery, you're going to have waste water," said Gray. "Depending on how well it's treated, you're going to end up with byproducts of the refinery process going into the water."

He also said natural gas extraction and refining produces methane gas.

Gray questioned the production of new, virgin plastic rather than growing the recycling industry. 

"There's a huge opportunity, both economically [and] ecologically, if we can address this plastic problem," he said.

James, of West Coast Olefins, said he believes the plant fits within provincial climate action goals, and said he will work to limit any impact the plant could have on Prince George's airshed.

The final investment decision on the project is expected late next year.