Fractastic Fort St. John

Last week I wrote about the stark difference in government policy towards the energy industry in Western Canada compared to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. 

Last week I wrote about the stark difference in government policy towards the energy industry in Western Canada compared to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Over 150,000 wells have already been fracked across Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C., for example, while these two Maritime provinces are effectively putting moratoriums on the practice.

This divide also plays out closer to home if you look at the differences in attitudes between Whitehorse and Fort St. John. Both are regional centres of about 25,000 people along the Alaska Highway. At the Yukon legislature’s public meeting on fracking in Whitehorse last week, media reports suggested that almost nobody showed up to support the industry. In Fort St. John, on the other hand, Mayor Lori Ackerman seems happy to extol the benefits of the oil and gas industry for her community.

Mayor Ackerman recently gave a lengthy interview for an industry-sponsored section on responsible energy in the National Post. If you read it you’ll quickly see why they opted for “The Energetic City” as their municipal tagline, leaving “The Wilderness City” moniker to Whitehorse.

Fort St. John voters seem to have a soft spot for frackophile politicians. In addition to Mayor Ackerman, the city’s MLA is a member of the B.C. Liberals, who are pushing hard to boost B.C.‘s gas exports to Asia. He won the 2013 election by a wide margin. Before that he was elected several times to Fort St. John city council. And the MP for the region is a Conservative who won the last election with over 60 per cent of the vote.

Partly this is because the energy industry has been working in the region for decades, so it is as familiar to Fort St. John residents as the mining industry is to Yukoners. Economic growth and jobs are also major attractions. In fact, the reason I started to do some research on Fort St. John is because I noticed some Fort St. John businesses advertising job openings in Whitehorse newspapers.

If you look at job websites, there appear to be a lot of openings in Fort St. John. Using job website as a very rough indicator, there appear to be more than twice as many job opportunities this week in Fort St. John as there are in Whitehorse.

Mayor Ackerman is not shy about the economic benefits of the energy business. “This is a community where skilled workers and tradespeople will never be looking for work,” she told the advertorial writers at the National Post. “Ten years ago about 50 per cent of our roads were gravel with open ditches. Now only a handful of blocks remain unpaved.”

She is also looking forward to liquefied natural gas exports, hoping that it will triple or quadruple the industry’s impact in her city.

She says the biggest challenge is the “lack of energy literacy across the country. There are those who pass judgment based on information that’s not always fact-based or balanced. The reality is the energy industry allows us to travel the globe, to power life-saving technology and to fuel our gadgets.”

Whitehorse’s fracking open house last week would have been even more exciting if Mayor Ackerman had showed up to debate the topic.

Although it would be entertaining for newspaper columnists, such a debate is not likely to take place.

Yukoners have seldom showed much interest in Fort St. John, preferring to drive through or even better fly over the place (ask any old-timer how annoying it was when the plane to Vancouver stopped there).

I don’t recall any of Whitehorse’s municipal politicians pushing for drilling around Whitehorse, at least not since a certain colourful politician a few decades ago. Even the Yukon Party government, which makes a big deal about economic development, has banned drilling in the Whitehorse trough. And we shall see if any members of the Yukon legislature’s fracking committee dare to stick their necks out on the topic.

Fort St. John has struck oil and Whitehorse has struck transfer payments. Until one or the other run out, the two cities seem set to continue on their separate paths.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith

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