Christy Clark's LNG dreams to be tested in rare fall legislative session
Governing Liberals to introduce legislation outlining tax, regulatory framework for LNG export industry
The B.C. Legislature convenes on Monday for what has become something of a rare event — a fall legislative session — where Premier Christy Clark's liquefied natural gas dreams will be put to the test of public scrutiny.
Although B.C.'s legislative calendar always marks off dates for a fall sitting, it has become increasingly uncommon. There has only been one other fall session since Clark became premier in 2011.
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Instead of appearing in the people's house to be held accountable in question period or answer to reporters in the hallways of the legislature, Clark has generally chosen instead to appear at select public events where her staff can mostly control the message.
The fact that Clark's government is having a fall session this year suggests the importance of the subject matter — and given her government's almost singular focus of late, it's not surprising that subject is liquefied natural gas.The premier has talked for years about the potential of LNG to drive B.C.'s economic future.
That talk was the cornerstone of the last election campaign, with its promises of a debt-free B.C. as a result of hundreds of billions of dollars in potential revenue from the emerging industry.
The problem so far, of course, is that the industry is just that — all potential. At least 17 energy companies have invested large amounts of money to secure a piece of that potential, but there has yet to be a single final investment decision made.
So this fall, the B.C. government will introduce legislation outlining its tax and regulatory framework for the LNG export industry.
There may be a few other issues at play, but LNG will occupy the bulk of the sitting days between now and when the house rises in late November.
While that may not sound very sexy, its significance as a key piece of the LNG puzzle can't be understated. This legislation will provide industry with the details on how much tax and regulation they're looking at.
As revealed in last February’s provincial budget, the government is planning a two-tiered approach, with a smaller amount of tax being paid at the outset and then increasing as the companies pay off their original infrastructure investment.
The legislation will also include restrictions on how much property tax individual municipalities can charge LNG companies, as well as environmental rules.
It is all being portrayed as part of a delicate balancing act between charging enough to ensure taxpayers get their fair share, but not so much that industry gets scared off.
The Liberals had promised to have this tax and regulatory framework in place by the end of last year.
The fact that it's coming now indicates that we are approaching crunch time for the province's LNG hopes and dreams. With the tax and regulatory pieces in place, there will be very little else preventing companies from making that final decision.
Unfortunately for Clark and the Liberals, the climate for LNG investment is not nearly as rosy as it was a year ago.
Petronas, the Malaysian energy giant, is even threatening to walk away from its proposed $10-billion LNG plant near Prince Rupert, citing concerns that the province's tax and regulatory scheme might not be competitive enough.
And the U.S. energy company, Apache, has also abandoned its partnership with Chevron for an LNG plant in Kitimat.
That's not to say the situation is bleak, but the harsher realities of LNG investment are becoming more evident.
So what happens if these LNG hopes and dreams go south? On the political side, it would be a crushing embarrassment for Clark's government — one from which she would have a very difficult time recovering.
On the economic side, it wouldn't be welcome news for many B.C. communities and industries counting on a coming boom.
I recall touring the Spectra Energy gas plant in Fort Nelson during the 2013 election campaign and chatting with a grizzled old guy who had worked in the plant and the natural gas industry his entire life.
I asked him what "Plan B" was if the LNG export idea didn't work out. He looked at me with a sense of amusement and said that with the way the natural gas industry is headed in North America, "This is Plan B."
This fall's legislative session will be a key step towards either seeing that "Plan B" starts to come to fruition, or for things to go very much the other way.