Companies & Industries

Is Vancouver the new Calgary?

Oil and gas companies setting up in B.C.

(Photo: Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

(Photo: Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

The management of Canada’s oil and gas industry has become, over the past few decades, ever more concentrated in Calgary. To many, Imperial Oil’s 2005 move from Toronto sealed the deal.

But that pattern is now showing some notable exceptions. Giants of the energy industry are suddenly setting up offices in Vancouver instead, and it looks like they’re here to stay.

At least four major energy companies have opened offices in and around Vancouver over the past six months. BG Group and Shell arrived last summer. Kinder Morgan and TransCanada in the fall. Progress Energy Canada, owned by Malaysia’s national energy company Petronas, plans to open an office in April. Others, such as Chevron, are expected to follow.

The principal reason for the influx is the advent of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry focused on B.C.’s northern coast. The hope is that, instead of being sold into an indifferent North American market as it is now, natural gas extracted from newly discovered fields in northern B.C. and Alberta could be piped west, converted into a liquid at proposed plants in Kitimat and Prince Rupert, then shipped to Asia where it fetches a price roughly five times higher. David Williams of Shell Canada estimates that its LNG project at Kitimat would initially export 12 million tonnes a year. “Twelve million tonnes is world-scale. There’s an option to expand up to 24 million tonnes. These are not boutique sizes, these are internationally comparable sizes,” he says.

Not only the terminals but most of the source wells and pipeline infrastructure will be located in B.C., making the provincial government the principal regulator. So it makes sense for companies to run their operations close to Victoria, and even closer to the contractors, suppliers and a potentially hostile public. “You could see B.C. double its natural gas production, and all of that would go toward LNG,” says Greg Kist, vice-president of marketing at Progress Energy. “It indicates that there is going to be significant pace of investment in Vancouver.” Kist expects his company’s West Coast office will in time have 200 employees.

LNG isn’t the only reason for the oilpatch’s beachhead on the Pacific, though. In addition to oil pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which has established its Trans Mountain Expansion Project office near the pipeline’s terminus in suburban Burnaby, Enbridge is reportedly (and belatedly) opening an office to help manage its Northern Gateway application.

Meanwhile, a couple of homegrown B.C.-based energy juniors have recently hit the big time. TSX Venture-listed Africa Oil, which is exploring for and producing oil in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, has seen its market capitalization shoot up to $1.8 billion in the past year. ShaMaran Petroleum, which is exploring in Iraqi Kurdistan, has a market cap topping $300 million.

In numbers and square footage of office space leased, the oilmen (and women) have yet to have much impact on Vancouver’s downtown, which is split among mining, professional and public-sector tenants. Bill Elliot, a principal with commercial real estate firm Avison Young, says that Shell, BG Group and Petronas have come to town, but “they’re opening up small offices.” Shell took 3,000 square feet, for instance. “It’s not like we’re seeing 50,000- or 100,000-foot deals. Could that change down the road? It could.”

The full effects of B.C.’s LNG development are still in the future. As more energy companies move to Vancouver, their presence could change the city into a new kind of industry centre. “I believe that Calgary will continue to be a focal point for the energy industry,” says Kist. “But Vancouver will be a focal point for the LNG industry.”