Huu-ay-aht delegation tours natural gas facility in Alberta

A delegation of Huu-ay-aht First Nations (HFN) citizens traveled to Alberta on a fact-finding trip to visit a natural gas operation on September 4th and 5th.

The purpose of the trip was to learn more about the extraction of natural gas as it relates to the proposed LNG project between Steelhead and Huu-ay-aht. The Huu-ay-aht delegation included Elected Chief Councillor Jeff Cook and Councillor Tom Happynook, Ḥaw̓iił Andy Clappis, Roy Werner, Marie Newfield and Stephen Rayner.

The partnership with Steelhead began as a result of a relationship between the Port Alberni Port Authority and HFN. The two groups had been working together on the transshipment hub project, and PAPA introduced HFN representatives to Steelhead LNG. After the initial introduction, Steelhead came to HFN with an idea to develop an LNG facility on HFN traditional territory at Sarita Bay.  What followed was the formation of a partnership that has been defined under an Opportunity Development Agreement (ODA) that was negotiated between the two parties. The relationship between Steelhead and HFN is the first of its kind because Steelhead approached HFN about the project from the very start and has committed to exploring this opportunity as project partners.

The tour of the natural gas operation was something HFN wanted right from the beginning so they could see such an operation first-hand in order to better understand where the natural gas comes from and how it is extracted before being sent to an LNG facility—like the facility proposed for Sarita Bay—that would liquefy the gas for shipment overseas.

Steelhead arranged the tour of the extraction facility in Grande Prairie, and the delegation flew out on Thursday, September 4th to learn more about that end of the operation.

The first stop was Grande Prairie where they met with the CEO of the natural gas extraction company offering the tour at his home. They also had an opportunity to meet with the chiefs from the two First Nations communities on which the operation is located.

One of the main reasons HFN wanted a tour of this particular site was that the company that operates it also has a strong relationship with the First Nations communities in the territory in which the extraction facilities are located. Similar to the Steelhead and HFN partnership, both parties have been involved since the beginning, and the concerns of the Nation were taken into consideration when developing the operation.

The two Albertan First Nations leaders said they were always welcome to share their views with the company representatives. They said they felt like they were heard and that the company really cared and were doing the extraction right, while considering their input. Chief Jeff Cook said he was pleasantly surprised by that relationship, and he was happy to hear that it too began before any development took place. He was also impressed to hear that the operation employs a number of members of the First Nations communities. He said some of them were labourers, and many had received opportunities for training. Many of the people the delegation met on the tour were First Nations who had started as labourers and were now trained to do some of the highly skilled positions.

Marie Newfield was impressed by the relationship between the company executives and the First Nations community. She said the “big shots” were just like family with the First Nations community members, and you could tell it was genuine and mutual.

Ḥaw̓iił Andy Clappis said the tour was worthwhile, and it made him feel better about benefiting from extracting natural gas from another nations’ territory.

“I was concerned because the fracking is taking place in our brothers’ territory,” he explained. “But it was a relief to hear that they are not against it and they have had their say.”

He said hearing from all of the experts helped him understand every part of the process, and that is important moving forward.

They did not discuss the financial side of the agreement, but overall it was a positive relationship that seemed to be offering many opportunities to the communities and the citizens. Neither chief offered any kind of concern over the operation or natural gas in general. Roy Werner said it was obvious both parties were benefiting from the agreement. He believes the same will be true should Huu-ay-aht and Steelhead move forward in their partnership.

On Friday morning, the HFN citizens’ tour started when they learned some of the science behind extracting natural gas. Company representatives showed them the geographical core samples of what the different layers of the earth look like in the area where the extraction takes place. The deepest of these was the layer of shale from which the natural gas is extracted. This layer is approximately three kilometres below the surface. It is a porous layer that resembles a sponge. The gas lies within the pockets of the shale. The group learned that, in order to extract the gas from the shale, a pipe is drilled down to that layer. The pipe then turns and drills horizontally into the shale. That is when the fracking occurs. Tom Happynook said that was one of his concerns heading into the tour, and he was interested in hearing the science behind it.

The delegation also learned that after the pipe reaches the shale a dense liquid is injected into the rock. This liquid is a combination of water, sand, and a water-soluble gelling agent called guar gum (also used in making Lifesavers popsicles), as well as a chemical commonly found in eye drops. That liquid is pressurized and sent down the pipes. The pressure causes the shale to crack. While the sand keeps these cracks open, the gas is released and the atmospheric pressure causes it to come to the surface naturally.

Some water comes to the surface at this point, and it contains a certain amount of dissolved salt. That is part of the process that the company is trying to improve. Stephen Rayner said he was relieved that the company is investigating ways to make changes so that not as much water is used during this process.

He said each time they extract gas, the process uses more than one-million litres of water. This concerns him, and he would like to see that water reused in some way. He was relieved the company is working on this problem.

Until a solution is reached, the salt water is put in pockets created when oil is extracted from the earth, but scientists are actively looking for ways to improve upon this method.

Chief Jeff Cook said fracking is one thing people ask about when it comes to earlier phases of the natural gas value chain. He said it is important to understand that it is not a new process. Companies have been fracking for more than 50 years, and it is only recently that people have voiced concerns over the practice. But he acknowledges it is still important to get both sides of the issue. Stephen Rayner said the company seems responsible and in tune with the environment.

Tom Happynook asked about flaming, but he learned that natural gas extraction does not require flaming as the gases release naturally. Some gases are burned off in the extraction process, but they are minimal. All gases that can be used, such as propane and butane, are sold, and the remaining impurities are burned off. When you look at the site, only the shut-off valves are visible. There are no big stacks or large pipes visible.

The company also explained to HFN delegates how they deal with protecting the aquifer. The pipe is put into the ground, and if it goes through an aquifer a second pipe is inserted into the first. Through that a light cement solution is pumped. It comes out the end of the pipe and slides up the outside of the original pipe creating a barrier between the pipe and the aquifer. This protects the aquifer from any natural gas leaks. The pipe used for the cement is then removed and the natural gas pipe goes down.

They also asked about the risk of earthquakes from extracting gases from the earth. It was explained to the delegation that the process does create some seismic activity, but it is no more than would occur from the movement of a train along a railroad.

After a tour of an operational facility and one still under construction in Grande Prairie, the delegation was taken on a helicopter tour of the area. They could see a lot of wells on the Crown land from the air, but the footprint from the operation was quite small. That is due in part to the fact that the company is able to drill horizontally once it is in the shale. This means they can drill one well with a main vertical line and run a number of horizontal lines from that main pipe. On the surface there is less of a footprint and less environmental impact to the area.

Roy Werner said you could see the areas that had been cleaned up after the company was done operating there. He said you could tell something had happened there, but it was growing back, and that what they leave behind is clean and green.

Marie Newfield said that as they flew around, she was surprised to see oil and gas pumps scattered all over the countryside. She was relieved to see that the site involved fewer pumps. Despite the small footprint, Chief Jeff Cook said the operation is responsible for supplying natural gas for the entire city of Chicago. From the air they could see the pipeline that fed Chicago, and it was not a large scar on the earth. Instead, it was a strip of land heading south. The trees were cleared, and you could tell where the pipeline was, but it was green with vegetation. The distance from Grande Prairie to Chicago is 3,070 kilometres, whereas the distance between Grande Prairie and Port Alberni is only 1,350 kilometres, indicating piping it to the city would not be a problem.

Tom Happynook said the footprint left behind is something that is important to HFN when choosing the companies from which they will purchase natural gas, should the LNG project move forward. Steelhead is not an extraction company. They would be involved in liquefying the natural gas at the proposed facility, and that is where their partnership with HFN lies. If the proposal goes forward and the facility is built, natural gas will be purchased from other companies, like the one they toured in Grande Prairie.

Reflecting upon the tour, Stephen Rayner said that he feels that there is great value in engaging First Nations when building the facility, because these community members have concern for the environment and the local surroundings. He said it is better to have some control than to hand it over to someone who has less concern for the things that matter. Chief Jeff Cook said they believe, if the LNG facility in Sarita Bay moves forward, HFN would see benefits for generations to come, much like the two First Nations communities in Alberta. It is estimated that the construction phase could create 3,000 jobs and, once operational, it could employ up to 400.