This interview has been transcribed and edited for length and clarity.

Timothy M. Egan, President and CEO, Canadian Gas Association: My first question is on the topic none of us seem able to stop talking about — COVID-19 and lockdowns. How is Fort St. John weathering things?

Her Worship Lori Ackerman, Mayor of Fort St. John, BC: I think our community has kept a good handle on the situation. Our public services have been looking after our vulnerable populations and making sure we are protecting our health care workers — keeping all safe during the pandemic. In the city, we’ve developed our protocols [and] we’ve been managing our operations according to those protocols. When the public health orders shift and change, we shift and change, and we’ve been able to adapt. There have been interruptions with activities at some of our facilities but we moved forward last year with all of our capital projects and we will do so again in 2021.

I think what has been beneficial for me is I have been involved in emergency management for well over 20 years. I was involved with it when I worked with the Salvation Army, and it really gave me an awareness of how the process works, knowing the benefit of remaining calm, knowing the processes that have to be gone through.

Egan: That’s great. It speaks to your municipal motto “the energetic city.” And on the topic of energy, I know you have a strong personal commitment to the value proposition of energy resources. Can you talk a little bit about what the “energetic city” slogan means for natural resource development in Fort St. John…and…how natural gas plays in all of that?

Mayor Ackerman: Well, first of all, I think that you know the energetic city was really about the energy that was around the community and the fact that we have access to just about every source of energy, except tidal, being quite a bit inland from the coast of British Columbia. But you know we’ve got a phenomenal community here. We are a young community — our average age is about 31 and a half — a lot of people come up here to kickstart their careers. These people bring remarkable ideas! I think per capita, we probably have more environmental companies here than there are down in Vancouver. Our outdoors [are] not only where our resources are but that’s where our community recreates and so when you want to talk about environmentalists, it’s the pipeliners, it’s the welders, it’s all of those guys and gals that are out there on the rigs…they’re the environmentalists. They’re making sure that their backyard is not going to be dirty and they have ownership in it because they live here.

On natural gas, we have a significant opportunity. The LNG Canada — upstream to downstream — is completely contained within the Province of British Columbia. We have a world-class regulator in the BC Oil and Gas Commission that has been able to marry projects like this with BC’s high environmental standards. We’re moving forward.

A few other things about energy — we were Clean Energy BC’s Community of the Year in 2017 and that was due to a couple of projects that we did. One was Canada’s most northern single-family passive house. Another was our micro-hydro project. We are up on a plateau above the Peace River [and] we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for high lift pumps bringing that water up, but as we process it, we put the water back down into the river in a better state than we got it. We understood that there was a significant elevation drop there, so we tightened up the line and put an inline turbine in there and wow — we’re making energy! So we’re firm believers that the best form of energy that you can get is what you can conserve, so we have a policy as well that every time we look at [building] or renovating a building…we look through the lens of: what can we do to make it better?

“[W]e’re firm believers that the best form of energy that you can get is what you can conserve…” |

Egan: You’ve talked about LNG, passive solar, micro-hydro — different pathways — and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but you seem to be saying that you want to look at them all. Often, the municipal conversation in Canada seems to be saying “no, we need to choose one and it’s electricity…” How do you respond to that?

Mayor Ackerman: I remember hearing there was a city in Canada that said that they were just not going to allow any more natural gas in their community, and I smiled and said “well they don’t really have that authority” I can’t go down and tell the hospital or the school district or any other business how they are going to run their business. In fact, I have a natural gas stove and I’m never giving it up!

I guess people really have to understand the infrastructure — I can go over and hit the light switch, I can hit the thermostat, plug in things — [but] most people are not aware of the significant infrastructure that is behind that light switch, thermostat, or plug-in and what it would take to shift. Unless you’re planning on taking over the entire upstream midstream downstream of this source — your businesses [and] your residents have already made a decision on what energy source they want.

Egan: When you think about the municipal conversation on energy it’s often dominated by the views of large urban centres. Cities like yours are not heard. Yet, in many respects you’re handling all the same issues and under more difficult circumstances. I was intrigued by your point about how you know the people of your community are very much environmentalists because they’re that much closer to the physical environment around them. Is there a role you can play to deepen the understanding of the bigger cities about the realities of the energy conversation?

Mayor Ackerman: Quite a few years ago we started an energy literacy campaign. We invite people up and take them out, show them the rigs, show them how everything works so that they completely understood everything that we are dealing with. We take them to the passive house, show them the inline turbine, and take them to the college that has an entire rig set up there that actually can operate to train people… They see the pigs1 (pipeline inspection gear) because that’s something that I understand…and anyone in the industry understands, but these folks have been driving past these pigging stations along the highway without knowing what they are…but when they understand what the pig is and the different types of pigs and what they do, they then understand the integrity of the pipeline and why there’s so much investment put into ensuring that integrity is maintained at all times. We’ve been trying for a long time to have our voices heard. I can tell you that the bullying that happens on social media after something like that — it’s only for the strong of heart to take on those conversations. I have had a few people tell me that I would never win my next election because they were going to tell my entire community that I support the oil and gas industry. You know, I learned a long time ago that there’s always twenty per cent totally in favour, twenty per cent totally against, and sixty per cent — the middle — saying “could you get out of my way, I’m trying to get to work.” I’m a firm believer that the last thing you should think about when you get up in the morning is government. We should not be front of mind and when government is injecting decisions in how we live our daily lives then I think that it’s a little overbearing. People need to understand how statutory decision-making works. They need to understand that we do have institutions in Canada that have significant science-based decision-making. Certainly I’ve gone toe-to-toe with companies that want to build or do whatever in my region — and we’ve got some significant investment in ESG (environmental social and governance) — as a result of engaging in a proactive and productive way. I just think that a lot of communities need to understand that the bullying against those of us who support oil and gas needs to end: communities need to speak out and get engaged.

Egan: You talk about the bullying, and you talk about being prepared to stand up to those who have ideas that are inconsistent with what you’re trying to do in your own community. What advice do you have for the energy industry to engage with municipalities, particularly in the context of some pretty aggressive energy goals from governments like those in Victoria and Ottawa?

Mayor Ackerman: First of all, they need to understand the jurisdiction of the regulator, because depending on the project it will either be the Canadian energy regulator or in our case, the BC Oil and Gas Commission. In every province it has a different name. We have an official community plan and it clearly lays out our vision for our community going into the future — it was prepared with significant public participation. Once in place, it’s my job — with my colleagues on council — to put it into effect, consistent with the regulatory regime. So, my recommendation is to understand the regulator’s requirements and the hoops that you need to jump through and then understand the official community plans of the jurisdiction. And then work within those and engage locally to work to show you’re enhancing things in some way, shape or form and leaving the community better off.

Egan: And what do you say to provincial and federal governments when they engage with you? Sometimes they set plans in the abstract. You, as local government, can’t act in the abstract: you’re much closer to the day-to-day for people. So, what advice do you have for other levels of government?

Mayor Ackerman: It’s usually the “dirt ministries” (government ministries that deal with land and resources) that come and see us. They’ll talk about a variety of different things but if they don’t understand our official community plan, then they have no idea what our intentions are. I don’t want them to consult with me, I want them to engage with me. The definition of consulting is just listening to what I’m saying and not providing feedback. Let’s not have that — engage with me and let’s have this conversation about what works and what doesn’t. My go-to default conflict management style is collaboration so I will spend countless hours and energy to make something work and I understand the need for collaboration on a lot of projects. Other levels of government need to as well.

Egan: In the last couple of months a number of things have happened that have made people reflect on energy in a different way. We just saw a pretty scary situation in Texas where a whole energy system was threatened by a severe weather event. Northern communities have a pretty good sense of the importance of reliability and resiliency — do you feel that there’s enough of an appreciation in the national conversation on energy and environment on these issues?

Mayor Ackerman: My stepson, lives in Lubbock, Texas, and so we’ve been down there a few times. One of the conversations I had down there was around the Canadian safety standards and technology they were looking to implement — we are light years ahead of some of the stuff that they were doing. I think that a lot of the infrastructure that we have in Canada is not appreciated — I think that people really need to understand their vulnerabilities. Nobody in Texas believed that ever would have happened to them but the reality is it did. In Canada, we have probably the best standards globally when it comes to infrastructure in a northern country. I think that there is a lack of awareness, a lack of respect, for our Canadian resources and how we’ve developed them here. I don’t think that’s intentional: people are just not thinking about the work that my residents and residents across other provinces do day in and day out to make sure that absolutely every source of energy is arriving to the consumer safely.

“I think that a lot of the infrastructure that we have in Canada is not appreciated — I think that people really need to understand their vulnerabilities.”

Egan: On the topic of appreciation, Canada is blessed with incredibly affordable energy. Do you think that there’s a deep enough appreciation of how important affordable energy is in the minds of your provincial and federal colleagues when they think about some of their energy and environmental plans?

Mayor Ackerman: In a nutshell, no. I don’t think that they understand it because I don’t think they’ve looked at what it will take to put the infrastructure in to support their ideals. I’m not saying that those shouldn’t be goals, but I can tell you there are neighbourhoods in this province that could not support more than two electric vehicles per neighbourhood because of the aged infrastructure in our electrical system. That’s a significant upgrade that’s going to be needed by that particular utility company in order to achieve that goal. I get that that’s a political decision, it’s an ideal that they’re going for, but I just don’t think there’s a total understanding of it and so I’ve often said to people “look I don’t care what you say on the campaign trail but when [you] get into that chair you’re now a decision maker, you are governing for your entire jurisdiction.” What happens is they focus on their constituents because they want to get re-elected and so they think in four-year chunks or whatever the election cycle seems to be, so nothing ever really gets done.

Egan: I hope we can get lockdowns lifted soon so more Canadians can get up to the beautiful part of the world around Fort St. John and hopefully listen to some of the insights of people like you about how to get things done. Thank you for speaking with us today and we appreciate your time and your perspective on the natural gas industry.