If the power grid can handle the load, a super-charged new industry is set to ignite in central B.C.

The Coyote Project is a proposed hydrogen and ammonia factory that Australian industrial giant Fortescue Future Industries wants to build just south of Prince George. These two products would then be used as much more environmentally friendly fuels for other heavy industry needs.

The company chose Prince George because of its centrality to road, rail and air transportation, plus its industrial land options close to fresh water.

As an economic hub city, this factory would also be well positioned to affect the economies of the surrounding region, like Quesnel to the immediate south, Vanderhoof to the immediate west, and other surrounding communities.

This is already becoming a reality via three other hydrogen plants taking formative steps forward in Prince George, making it already the B.C. city at the centre of this new industry. Hydrogen as a fuel source is not new, but these mass production facilities are, and Fortescue’s would be the most ambitious and diverse of the bunch.

They just need power. A lot of it. This used to be cheap and abundant in B.C., but the growth of urbanization, the advent of the electric car, the push for home heat pumps, and the demands of a diverse industrial economy have sucked the supply almost dry. It jeopardizes the potential 350 ongoing, well-paying jobs represented by the Coyote Project – all of them new to the B.C. economy, all of them insulated from other B.C. boom-and-bust commodities, and most of it a magnet for income from outside the country.

The Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, on whose territory the project would sit, is assertively in support of the project. For more than two years they were at the negotiation table before it was ever publicly announced.

The City of Prince George is staunchly on the record as being supportive. What’s left is the provincial go-ahead, pending the math on the power needs.

“It’s hard. That’s ok,” said Stephen Appleton, Canada’s country manager for Fortescue. “There will always be problems and challenges of some kind. But if people galvanize around an opportunity, and with belief and determination – and I would go so far as to say courage – that they can be overcome. It should feel exciting. It’s all exciting, where there is the will and determination to open up this area of the economy to an alternative energy source in light of fighting a climate crisis. It is real. British Columbians have dealt with it. This is emission free, and the start of something substantial.”

There were concerns raised by the official opposition BC United Party, based on some documents they obtained, that the governing NDP’s minister of energy Josie Osborne was crafting a plan to squeeze Fortescue for big extra money in exchange for the power supply. Appleton said this tactic was not used.

“We saw that, we read it, we dismissed it,” Appleton told Black Press Media about the reports. “Our take on all this is: premier Eby addressed this correctly. We have never had such discussions. Full stop. We are going forward with the way the B.C. government has treated us, and that has never come up.”

For Prince George mayor Simon Yu, a professional engineer by trade, this all new and fully different industry is worth the stress on the B.C. power supply. It would be a transformative economic injection but also a big step forward on climate action.

“The railway, UNBC, I would put this project right up there,” with those game-changers for northern B.C., he said. “The world is transitioning from a dangerous energy model – we need to survive as a human species – and this project can provide hope, and transition to energy that will buy us enough time so even better technology can come around to allow us to survive as humans. There’s no time to waste. That’s why we are here.”

“We will see in the next few months how serious everyone is,” Appleton said, but added that Fortescue isn’t in ultimatum mode. “Everyone has a Plan B, but we are working hard for Plan A. And Plan B might not mean leaving Prince George.”

Other challenges before the project pertain to federal and provincial tax structures, aspects of the all-new official hydrogen development blueprints the feds and province have recently released, as guidelines for an embryonic sector. Appleton said he was hopeful there was room to bend, within those policies, in light of the advancements in technology the Fortescue project would represent.

CN Rail would also need to come to the table as a transportation partner with a fleet of rail cars customized for the hydrogen and ammonia products that would flow out of the factory.

What would not flow out of the factory, said Appleton, would be smokestack emissions. The simplest breakdown of the process is, fresh water would be taken into the Coyote plant and the two H molecules in H2O would be carved off. The main emission would be O…pure oxygen. Even that, he said, might have some marketable application, but even if it just goes back into the atmosphere, it’s no problem for the area’s airshed.

“There is too much volume for road to be practical, and road is one of the most expensive ways. We could look at pipeline, but it’s not practical either,” Appleton said, regarding transportation. “Rail is the sensible source of distribution. CN Rail has been looking at this for years. The movement of ammonia happens every day, right now. This is not new: 190-million tons of ammonia is moved each year around the world. They have come up with very strict guidelines of how they would do it. That’s the role of CN Rail. They have been playing very well with us as we work through this.”

If all goes according to realistic plan – not necessarily hitting every green light at top speed, but authentic estimations – the facility would be open in 2028.

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