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Is the Federal government trying to say ‘no’ to B.C. LNG?

It was one of the largest expressions of grassroots concern and opinion that we’ve seen recently in B.C. Thousands of residents in Fort Nelson, Fort St. John and Terrace held “Northern Jobs for Northern Families” rallies.

They were driven by deep concern with the impact of the resource downturn on their communities, businesses and families and by a deep conviction that the development of an LNG export industry in B.C. is a decisive turnaround opportunity.I can’t think of any better evidence that LNG projects have the coveted stamp of “social licence.” And it extends across the northern region that will be most directly involved in the industry’s development — from the gas-producing areas in the northeast to the coastal northwest where the export facilities will be located.

So it would have been hugely welcome if these rallies had been followed, as expected, by a federal decision on environmental approval of one the largest and most promising LNG proposals. Instead, on the weekend prior to the anticipated decision, federal regulators “paused the legislated timeline” in the review of the Pacific Northwest LNG project near Prince Rupert.

Terrace residents who want the provincial and federal governments to push ahead with a liquefied natural gas export industry in B.C. show their support at a recent rally.
Terrace residents who want the provincial and federal governments to push ahead with a liquefied natural gas export industry in B.C. show their support at a recent rally.

A decision from Ottawa has now been pushed to three months after the proponent is able to respond to yet further requests for information. We now have an uncertain end date for a review process that began some three years ago and was originally expected to take only a year.

This willingness to impose further delay on an already extensively reviewed project is troubling, particularly in combination with the federal determination to impose additional review requirements on major projects. Project-specific assessments of upstream greenhouse gas emissions, for example, will add to the complexity and uncertainty of reviews. And they are a regulatory add-on to what is already strong action on carbon pricing and reduction at the provincial level.

There are a lot of ways to scuttle natural resource development and other major projects. A clear “no” is the simplest and probably most principled. But another approach, that may come with less political cost, is simply to delay and defer. To play review processes out until an investment- or market-related window closes and proponents are left with no choice but to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

We’ve been warned on this. Last month the ambassador from Japan, where one of the major backers of Pacific Northwest LNG is headquartered, noted in a submission to regulators that: “If the approval of the environment assessment is delayed further, Canada may run the risk of missing the chance to export LNG to the growing Asian market for a long time.”

And now it has been delayed further. Is the new federal government playing for time, and looking for an indirect way to scuttle LNG development in B. C.? Knowing the importance northern British Columbians place on such potential development — and the difference it could make to businesses and workers coping with downtime and uncertainty — I certainly hope not.

The delayed decision on Pacific Northwest LNG was bad news for northerners and for all British Columbians and Canadians. The Conference Board of Canada recently pegged the impact of a 30-million-tonnes-per-year LNG industry at $7.4 billion in national economic growth annually and increase national employment by 65,000 jobs. These are jobs created by the private sector. They are not taxpayer supported jobs. A significant proportion of those benefits is now at further risk.

I think it’s too soon to conclude that that’s what the new federal government intended. But it could certainly stand to demonstrate an understanding of the importance of and depth of support for these projects, and an ability to make timely decisions on them.

Philip Hochstein is president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., whose 1,200 members build in every construction sector and are involved in virtually all major capital projects in B.C.

Article first published in the The Province.

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