The Peace River region chamber just recognized the support of local heavy oil producers

The Peace River region chamber of commerce, which represents businesses in the town of about 6,800 as well as surrounding hamlets and rural areas, broke with its traditional approach in mid-January when it presented three of its major awards—recognizing local movers and shakers—to oil companies.

The awards presentation was a marked departure from the past, says chamber of commerce president Mike Matthews. The annual President’s Award was given to Shell Canada for its contribution to the area’s economy, while the inaugural Industry Leadership Award was presented to Baytex Energy.

“In the past, the President’s Award has usually gone to a local businessman who has also done something to help the community,” says Matthews, adding that most often the winner is a retail business. “This year’s award was given to Shell and its Carmon Creek Project, which reflects what the company has done for the town and local business people in the last couple of years.”

Shell has been operating in the Peace River region for several decades, and in 2013 the company deepened that relationship exponentially by sanctioning its 80,000-bbl/d Carmon Creek thermal project.

Baytex, the region’s second-largest producer, was selected because it, like Shell, has a policy of supporting local businesses, Matthews says.

Baytex was a target of critical media coverage last year, and in 2013, after some local residents claimed odours from its Reno heavy oil project were causing dizziness, headaches, fatigue and cognitive impairment.

As a result of those complaints, which led some residents living near the plant to move, the Alberta Energy Regulator held hearings in the town last January and subsequently ordered Baytex to install vapour recovery units (VRUs) on all 86 storage tanks at Reno (VRUs, which trap virtually all emissions, were already in place at 29 of its 86 tanks).

A related lawsuit was also resolved in October 2014 with Baytex purchasing four farms in the area.

Matthews, who owns a local Internet service provider and who is serving his second consecutive year as president of the chamber of commerce, says the two awards reflect the changing face of the town, but they are also a recognition of the oilsands and heavy oil sector’s support of local companies.

“Both Shell and Baytex strongly support local businesses, and we wanted to show our appreciation,” he says.

Reflecting the role of heavy oil development in the region’s economy, the chamber of commerce’s third major award winner is also involved in the sector.

Locally owned Avenge Energy Services, which provides vac, semi-vac, water, steam and other pumping services, was selected by the chamber as the area’s Business of the Year. Established in 2006, Avenge has grown from a small business that started with a handful of trucks to a fleet of 30, which service the Peace River area, northeastern B.C. and elsewhere.

Despite the current low price environment, Matthews says local companies haven’t yet noticed a significant drop-off in business, including his own firm, called Wispernet, which provides Internet service to rural residential and business customers.

However, there are some signs that the area’s very tight labour market has changed. He says the chamber discovered this while searching for an administrative assistant. Last year there were two applications for the same position. This year there were 12.

Nevertheless, he says there are no signs of a local recession having been caused by the oil price collapse.

“I’ve heard about a couple of layoffs, but nothing major. A lot of [work] is already budgeted.”

Shell announced in late January it would be delaying the third and fourth phases of Carmon Creek, the area’s largest oilsands project by far. However, work is well underway on the first two phases. Construction is expected to create 1,100 peak construction jobs this year, followed by 165 permanent jobs.

Baytex, which has 50 permanent employees at its Peace River–area projects and also employs about 150 contract workers on a regular basis, produces 24,000 bbls/d.

Andrew Loosely, the company’s director of stakeholder relations, says it was honoured to receive the chamber award.

“It’s a credit to our field staff and the management,” Loosely says, adding that the company has spent $52 million in the last year or two to make improvements at its Reno and Cliffdale projects, mostly aimed at improving environmental performance.

Baytex expects to be a producer in the area for many years, he says, citing a recent Sproule Associates assessment that the bitumen in place on its leases holds between 450 million barrels and 797 million barrels.

Loosely says that since it installed the VRUs there has been a significant drop in complaints from landowners near its projects about odours and other concerns, with just a handful having expressed concerns in the last several months.

In addition to installing the VRUs and taking other steps to reduce emissions, he says Baytex established its “good neighbour program,” which included the creation of an independent panel of community volunteers who evaluate the company’s performance on an ongoing basis.

Loosely says the chamber of commerce award came as a surprise, especially after the negative media coverage the company had received about its operations in the area.

Shell’s Peace River operations manager, Bob Blachford, says that being a good neighbour is fundamental to the company’s success.

"The Peace Region is home for many of our employees and contractors. It's our community, and has been since Shell acquired leases in the area in the 1950s.

"This is top of mind in everything we do—we want to be a good neighbour—so it is an incredible honour to be recognized by the Peace River & District Chamber of Commerce for our contributions."

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