Apache Canada’s Robert Spitzer makes drilling palatable

Architect of Horn River Producers Group builds connections in B.C.

January 01, 2012

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Snyder Smith Robottom MacNichol Moore Danroth Spitzer

Robert Spitzer
Photography by Roth & Ramberg

Rob Spitzer remembers his first foray into the sometimes wild world of community relations. It happened 15 years ago when Spitzer, Apache Canada Ltd.’s vice-president of exploration, was working for Shell Canada. At the time, Shell was planning to drill a sour gas well near Millarville in rural southern Alberta and it had to notify all of the landowners in the area about its plans.

After receiving their information packages, one of the landowners called Spitzer and asked if he could talk to him. “When I met this man, I noticed that he had drawn a skull and crossbones over the Shell logo on the envelope that we had sent to him,” Spitzer says. “I knew the meeting probably wasn’t going to go very well.”

Spitzer says there was enormous opposition in Millarville to drilling the sour gas well. So he and Shell got to work, listening to the concerns of locals and searching for solutions that accommodated the landowners but also met Shell’s objectives. “After working on those stakeholder relations for a year, the well finally got drilled,” Spitzer says. “The most important thing I learned is to ask myself, ‘How would I like to be treated?’ I believe I should always do things with honesty, respect and integrity and hopefully things will go well.”

It’s no secret that industry’s development plans have never been under more scrutiny. That’s particularly true when it comes to the extraction of unconventional forms of petroleum like shale gas. The large quantities of water and chemically-laced fracture fluids required to crack the tight rock and release vast amounts of natural gas has raised concerns (and often vociferous protests) about contamination of drinking water, increased truck traffic, and more, in places like West Virginia, New York and Quebec where shale gas explorers have set up shop.

Spitzer is well aware of the public perceptions surrounding shale gas. But the recipient of the C-Suites top government and community relations executive award has also been a driving force in getting out ahead of the issue in one of North America’s shale gas frontiers – northeastern British Columbia’s Horn River basin. Spitzer is the chairperson of the Horn River Basin Producers Group, an organization that has gone a long way towards gaining acceptance for shale gas development in the area.

Formed in 2007, the 55-year-old Spitzer got the producers group off the ground after getting feedback from some high level stakeholders. “The Chief of the Fort Nelson First Nations, Liz Logan, and the provincial government wanted a single point of contact so they would only have one group to deal with and not a bunch of individual companies. That made sense to me.”

Although oil and gas activity is not new in northeastern B.C., the use of horizontal drilling and fraccing to extract shale gas is new. The potential scale of the shale gas activity is also immense. The National Energy Board estimates there was 78 trillion cubic feet of marketable gas remaining in the Horn River basin at the end of 2010. And the NEB expects a good portion of that gas will be developed. In a recent forecast, it says production in the Horn River will rise to four billion cubic feet per day by 2035 from 437 million cubic feet per day in 2011.

As the chair of the 10-member producer’s group, Spitzer’s job is to coordinate the over-arching issues among the producers, speak on their behalf, and get the information out to the people who need it. The main concerns fall into two camps – employment and the environment. The producers group has been proactive in trying to address these concerns by holding conferences, career fairs, information meetings and providing funding for training programs.

Spitzer remembers the first meeting of the group being a lot like a high stakes poker game, where no one was showing their hand. But as each company realized they were better off speaking as one voice instead of 10, the atmosphere improved. It is still early days in the development of the Horn River basin. But the region is an important one for Apache Canada. The gas produced here will provide the supply for the Kitimat LNG project. The $4.5 billion liquefied natural gas project being pursued by Apache Canada, EnCana Corp. and EOG Resources Canada received NEB approval in October 2011. The partners haven’t made a decision to build it yet, but the project is seen as a crucial piece of infrastructure as Canadian producers scramble to sell the chilled fossil fuel to lucrative Asian markets.

However, increased development in the Horn River basin could still be curtailed as the shale gas story evolves and if concerns about water use, water contamination and safe disposal of produced water are not properly addressed. In that context, Spitzer and the producers group’s outreach work in the region is critical to the industry’s growth plans. “We have to continue with the work we are doing because the basin could take 10, 20, or 30 years or more to fully develop,” Spitzer says. “New concerns come up all the time and the producers group can mitigate those concerns. Not only does it keep stakeholders and First Nations in the loop, but it helps to advance the operations of all of the producers.”

More posts by Diane L.M. Cook

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