TransCanada Corp. is poised to chalk up a success for northern natural gas development by giving aboriginal communities a piece of the action.

With consent from the British Columbia (BC) government and popular encouragement in the area, TransCanada is seeking permission from the National Energy Board (NEB) to make an early start on building its proposed Horn River Pipeline in order to generate the most native employment possible.

The schedule for the C$237 million (US$232 million) project sets a target of May 1, 2012 for service to begin on the 155-kilometer (97-mile) line connecting the Horn River shale gas field in northeastern BC to TransCanada’s Nova grid in Alberta. Besides being capable of carrying 1 Bcf/d or more of BC shale production, the Horn River project is billed as establishing a potential link between the proposed Alaska pipeline and the top of the established North American gas transportation grid in northwestern Alberta.

The request to the NEB is an attempt to change, in BC natives’ favor, a feast-or-famine seasonal pattern that northern operations have evolved to cope with nature. The Horn River shale gas drilling hot spot is in a remote region near BC’s top boundary with the Yukon and Northwest Territories that has long been known as the industry “near frontier.” The landscape is a rugged blend of forest and muskeg swampland, where heavy equipment and all but the most experienced bush travelers can only move and work when the ground freezes during winters. Conditions are often severe, but also sometimes interrupted or cut short by warm Chinook winds blowing inland across the Rocky Mountains from the Pacific coast.

No opposition to the pipeline project has surfaced. But the regulatory approval process could stretch into the 2010-2011 winter, forcing TransCanada and its prime contractor to cram all the construction into the winter of 2011-2012. The rush job would turn over most if not all of the work to Alberta or southern BC companies and crews that are big and experienced enough to do the entire job in as little as three or four months between winter freeze and spring thaw.

The attempt to spread the work out over two winters by making an early start follows lengthy consultations by TransCanada with aboriginal communities, trappers and settlers clustered around the nearest town to the pipeline project, Fort Nelson. The tasks proposed for the initial season this winter, clearing the right-of-way and a spot for a camp for pipeline construction specialists such as welders, are woods crafts that northern contractors and workers are most qualified to perform.

The BC government owns the area as Crown land, stands committed to support native economic advancement, and accepts TransCanada’s proposal for accelerated approval. The request is supported by Eh-Cho-Dene Enterprises, a business arm of the Fort Nelson First Nation, the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality and the Fort Nelson Forestry Round Table Committee, a northern contractor coalition.

Pipeline jobs would relieve hard times brought on by northern sawmill closures owed to reduced demand for wood from the weak overall economy, the NEB is being told. Long-range strengthening of area employment is also projected, with community leaders predicting that skills and relationships between natives and northern contractors of all ethnic backgrounds will improve. All concerned say residents of the Canadian gas industry’s near frontier hope to achieve a growing role as development of the Horn River area’s prolific shale deposits accelerates, generating a stream of drilling plus a wide range of pipeline and processing plant construction projects currently on the industry’s drawing boards.

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