British Columbia

Fact Check: Promises, promises — last election's 'epic fail'

In 2013 the BC Liberals promised liquefied natural gas would start making the province rich by 2017—but the boom went bust before it began. So what happens when election promises run dry? And what should we watch for in this campaign?

Experts say the biggest election promise of B.C.'s 2013 campaign — LNG — holds lessons for voters in 2017

B.C. Premier and Liberal Leader Christy Clark puts on a pink hard hat during the 2013 provincial election campaign. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The Bard of the Yukon, Robert W. Service, once wrote, "a promise made is a debt unpaid." If that's true, then the BC Liberals owe the province a trillion dollars — plus or minus a few billion.

That's how much the BC Liberals promised would come our way– if we voted for Christy Clark in the 2013 election.

Back then, as in this election, Clark was in trouble in the polls. Even her leadership was under fire within the Liberal party.

Then came the promise– which became a massive plank in her election platform.

Under the steady hand of her leadership, she vowed B.C. would reap the riches of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

She said her party had the vision to make sure the province's natural gas reserves flowed to international markets — pumped through pipelines to massive facilities around Prince Rupert and Kitimat and on the South Coast, chilled to -160 C and shipped primarily to Asia.

B.C. would see one trillion dollars in economic activity over the next 30 years, and put one hundred billion dollars into a "B.C. Prosperity fund".

According to the 2013 speech from the throne, we'd have so much money from LNG we'd be able to eliminate the PST or MSP, and have mad money left over for other expenses.

Clark ran her 2013 campaign with the slogan "Debt Free B.C.", based on that promised LNG windfall.

Nicolas Kenny, associate professor of history at SFU, says the 2013 LNG promise was a "Hail Mary" pass by the B.C. Liberals. (Harold Dupuis, CBC)

'Hail Mary' pass

"Desperate times called for desperate measures, and that's exactly what the LNG promise was," recalls Nicolas Kenny, an associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University.

"When you're down at the end of the game, you go for that 'hail Mary' pass. You try to do anything that will set you apart. And that's exactly what they were doing."

'The money is going to 2017'

Right about now, we were supposed to be rolling around in our newfound wealth like comic book character Scrooge McDuck.

Clark told the CBC's Early Edition in February of 2013, "The money is going to start coming in 2017, and we're going to have three plants up and running by 2020, first one by 2015."

"There are never guarantees, obviously. But…[private sector companies] are the ones saying 'this is a good investment, and we believe prices are going to stay high.'"

British Columbians went on to vote Clark and her B.C. Liberals back into power that May.  

Pollsters and political pundits were stunned.

Kenny thinks the promise of untold LNG wealth helped sway the vote, calling it "a successful ploy."

"It was a big promise. It was bold, it was ambitious, and she was able to play that up in her eternal optimism in the campaign trail" says Kenny.

"I think it helped close the gap…ultimately they were able to convince enough people. So when it comes down to pure electoral calculation, I think it was quite successful."

LNG prices plunge after promise

But almost as soon as the promise was made and the BC Liberals were re-elected, world oil and natural gas prices started to drop. Except for a brief spike in 2014, it's been pretty much downhill ever since.

The B.C. Liberals say they had no control over the price plunge and that's why the promise of LNG has yet to be realized.

In 2014, Finance Minister Mike de Jong said simply "the market's changed."

Last fall, Premier Clark was still holding out hope, predicting the price of natural gas would "go up any day."

A request for an interview with Rich Coleman, who has been the province's minister of natural gas development, wasn't granted in time for this story.

While there are still 19 multi-national oil consortiums and smaller players floating proposals for pipelines and production facilities, some energy experts say the 2013 election promise was a pipe dream from the beginning.

'Psychedelic dreams'

"I fully expect politicians to dream — they can dream in black or white or they can dream in psychedelic colours" says energy lawyer David Austin of the law firm Clark-Wilson LLP.

"The market reality is always black and white."

He says the LNG promise "was too ambitious and not an achievable plan."

Energy Lawyer David Austin says the LNG dream "is not dead...but was never practical". (Dillon Hodgin, CBC)

Of the 19 projects currently listed on the government's LNG site, just three appear to be quickly moving forward: the Aurora LNG proposal by Nexen on Digby Island, the Woodfibre LNG proposal next to Squamish, and the WesPac marine terminal on Tilbury Island in Delta. 

Of those, only the Woodfibre LNG project has completed all major federal and provincial approvals and has made a crucial final investment decision (FID). 

Then, there's high-profile projects the government has long promoted: the Kitimat LNG proposal by Chevron, the LNG Canada proposal (also in Kitimat) led by Shell Canada, and the Petronas-led Pacific Northwest LNG project proposed for Lelu Island, just next to Prince Rupert. 

All have regulatory approval, but in each case there's no timeline for a final investment decision.

This, in addition to the cancellation of the Douglas Channel project in 2016, and the Prince Rupert LNG project at Ridley Island in March 2017. 

'The Liberals are...quite fortunate'

So how did the B.C. Liberals get away with not delivering on a massive 2013 election promise?

SFU's Nicolas Kenny says Christy Clark got lucky.

"I think the Liberals are in a sense quite fortunate that other aspects of the economy have allowed them to keep up and present this message of economic stewardship. Because if we were in a more difficult economic position than we are right now, then it would be even easier to come back and say you promised this and didn't deliver."

But B.C.'s natural gas reserves remain plentiful. Is it possible that the trillion-dollar promise is just delayed until world prices rebound?

Energy lawyer David Austin doesn't think so.

"The dream is not dead. But as proposed by politicians, it was never practical. And that's as true today as it was four years ago."

In fact, he worries all the hype might have hurt B.C.'s LNG prospects.

"The LNG developers worldwide are constantly trying to get the best deal. And if you get too excited about having an LNG industry in your territory…they'll take advantage of that through negotiating lower costs to them, and they'll play you off the various governments throughout the world."

'Ask yourself, what's being sold?'

Kenny doesn't think Christy Clark will make another LNG-type mega-promise, because she's learned her lesson.

"I think this time around, what history has taught her was that [it] might have worked once. I doubt it works twice."

So what's the lesson for voters starting to be hit with 2017 election hype?

"In politics it's all about image…politicians need something that will capture [voters'] imagination. And so ask yourself—what's being sold?"

"The sizzle is very attractive. But the steak is what you sink your teeth into."

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Eric Rankin

Investigative journalist

Eric Rankin is an award-winning CBC reporter. His honours include the 2018 Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Reportage, the 2017 and 2015 RTDNA awards for Best In-depth/Investigative Reporting, and the 2009 Jack Webster award for Best News Reporting.