When families in the remote northern Alberta communities of Mackenzie County build homes, many insist on wood stoves and propane tanks.
Steady population growth over the past decade is outstripping the capacity of the natural gas system to heat homes and businesses, and the shortage has become so severe county officials are considering bylaws to prevent new buildings from connecting to the grid.
To solve the problem, Mackenzie County is calling for a new pipeline to connect another source of natural gas to its system.
“It’s not reasonable and we really need to see this happening very soon because otherwise we’re not going to continue to grow,” said Reeve Peter Braun.
The project is estimated to cost $45 million. A new 65-kilometre pipeline would connect the existing grid to the Wolverine meter station, a natural gas source south of the Mackenzie County hamlet of La Crete.
Northern Lights Gas Co-op, the not-for-profit distributor that supplies the affected area, owns the grid that connects homes, businesses, schools and health centres to natural gas.
The grid includes communities such as La Crete, Buffalo Head Prairie, Paddle Prairie, Keg River and Carcajou. People in those communities faced a state of emergency last winter triggered by outages during a –40 C cold snap.
“Heat in the home is, in our mind, an essential service,” John Klassen, vice-chair of the gas co-op, told CBC News. “These projects are large dollar-value projects which a small co-op like ours just can’t seem to handle on its own.”
Klassen said the co-op is saving for the new pipeline by charging each user an additional $20-per-month fee, and levying a small tax on every kilojoule of natural gas used.
Klassen estimated it will take his company 10 years to save enough money for the proposed pipeline, by which time he said its price tag may have increased.
‘It’s not a frivolous thing’
Census data shows the county’s population has nearly doubled over the past two decades, surpassing 11,000 in 2016.
Northern Lights Gas Co-op connects an average of 73 new homes to its grid every year.
Waiting a decade for a pipeline crucial to growth and development in northwest Alberta is unacceptable, said Mackenzie County’s chief administrative officer Lenard Racher.
The county is now advocating for provincial funding on behalf of the gas co-op, asking the Alberta government to help pay for the project.
“We’re not naive, we know that every community has challenges but we’re fighting for our little piece of the pie,” Racher said. “If we get this pipeline built here, we’re destined to succeed, but without it we’re destined to fail.”
Mackenzie County wants the province to cover half the pipeline’s $45-million cost with a grant and the other half with a low-interest loan.
“It’s not a frivolous thing,” Racher said. “If we don’t act now, we will be in trouble in two to three years. That is an absolute given.”
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