Oilpatch watches nervously as B.C. heads to the polls

Alberta is still dealing with several problems, chief among them energy prices that are still too low to justify much new investment. An election on May 9 one province away has the oilpatch on edge.

What would an NDP government in B.C. mean for Alberta's oilpatch?

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark and B.C. NDP leader John Horgan spar. Voters in that province are going to the polls tomorrow. (B.C. Broadcast Consortium)

Alberta is still grappling with a host of problems, chief among them sluggish oil prices that are still too low to justify much new investment in the energy sector.

But pipeline woes, while not fully resolved, had at least been moving in the right direction for the province. With federal approval and a permit from British Columbia, Kinder Morgan is set to make a final investment on the Trans Mountain expansion in the coming weeks, with construction possibly starting in the fall. 

But as B.C. voters head to the polls on May 9, Trans Mountain is back in flux. Recent polls suggest the NDP is slightly ahead, but with a margin of error that makes the election too close to call.

Nonetheless NDP Leader John Horgan is promising changes that are causing consternation in the oilpatch, one province away.

The Trans Mountain 'toolbox'

While B.C.'s Liberal government took its time coming around to Trans Mountain, it eventually granted a permit to Kinder Morgan after saying the company had met its conditions of approval.

B.C.'s New Democrats, on the other hand, are firm in their opposition to Trans Mountain.

Advanced poll at Vancouver Community College. (David Horemans/CBC)

The NDP's platform says that if elected, New Democrats will use "every tool in our toolbox" to stop the project from going forward. What that means is unclear.

"There aren't a lot of tools in that toolbox; the federal government has decided that it's going to go forward," said Trevor McLeod, who directs energy policy research at the Canada West Foundation in Calgary.

"Of course, politicians are able to turn those toolboxes over and stand on them and shout loudly and try to convince voters that it's not a good idea." 

The Kinder Morgan pipeline has not been top of mind in the B.C. election. Voters have been more focused on housing affordability, for both buyers and renters, and more recently, on the personalities of the three party leaders.

If elected, the B.C. NDP party would like to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

"Energy issues haven't figured very prominently in the campaign," said Jock Finlayson, vice-president of the Business Council of B.C. "Including the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, somewhat surprisingly, given how contentious that's been."

A moratorium on fracking?

Fracking is also on the NDP's radar.

The northeastern corner of British Columbia is home to a number of shale natural gas fields, such as the Montney and Horn River basins. The gas is produced through hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. The most recent numbers from December 2015 indicate that B.C. produced five billion cubic feet a day of gas. That's a significant amount, about half of Alberta's production.

B.C.'s NDP party is proposing a scientific review of fracking. (CBC)

The NDP says it would appoint a scientific panel to review the practice to ensure the gas is produced safely. 

Finlayson said he wouldn't be surprised if the NDP, if elected, slapped a moratorium on new fracking permits during that review.

"That's my understanding," he said. "That's not something the industry would be keen to see, but I think a moratorium would include the appointment of a panel that would do a fairly quick review, because there has been lots of work done across North America on fracking."

Conditions on LNG

In the 2013 B.C. election campaign, the Liberals were focused on the need to build Liquefied Natural Gas plants to get the province's gas offshore for a better price. But B.C. missed the first window of opportunity to export LNG, beaten by both Australia and the United States. Its best bet now is to get a plant built in the early 2020s, when demand for LNG is expected to increase.

B.C.'s NDP party is pitching new conditions on LNG plant approvals (CBC)

The NDP says it will place four conditions on LNG projects, none particularly onerous. One calls for the project to provide jobs to local residents, for example. 

"B.C. and Canada have been through the wringer on this," said McLeod of the Canada West Foundation. "There are additional challenges that will make investors look more than once."

But McLeod suggests that new conditions for LNG are just another instance of a Canada-wide problem with competitiveness.

"There's a whole bunch of these issues," he said. "And I don't know where I'd rank (LNG conditions) ... but I do think that Canada needs to pay close attention to its competitiveness."

Possible minority government

Liberal Leader Christy Clark has also thrown a curveball at Alberta, first by asking the federal government to ban the export of thermal coal from B.C. ports, or, failing that, to impose a $70 a tonne tax that would make exporting coal from the province of Alberta uneconomical. That would hurt an industry that's already on the ropes in the province.

There's a strong possibility that B.C. could end up with a minority government, in which the Green Party would hold the balance of power. The Greens held one seat in the legislature before the election, but is polling well enough that it could pick up a few more.

If either the Liberal Party or the NDP are just short of the 44 seats needed to form a majority, the Greens will be in a position to push the party's agenda.

"It's not evident which party they would support; they've been fairly coy about that," said Finlayson.

But he expects there would be "horse trading going on" in terms of climate and carbon policy if the Greens are in the driver's seat following the election.