The entire question of LNG has reached a sorry pass indeed. The premier's policy seems to be crumbling before our eyes.
Let's not forget that Premier Clark and her Liberals pulled the 2013 election out of the jaws of defeat by promising a Liquefied Natural Gas industry to the extent of a trillion dollar addition to the economy, $100 billion into a "prosperity fund," an LNG plant built by 2015, and all of our debts paid off. We would be on easy street.
But the whole business on the eve of 2015 is at square one. There is no commitment by any company to build an LNG plant in British Columbia. That these election promises were preposterous, as I and many more expert than I said at the time, is patently obvious.
Now, the chickens have come home to roost. Negotiations with Petronas, the only LNG company apparently interested, have descended into a public squabble.
This means that the premier has the opportunity of doing now what should have been done in the first place. She needs to do whatever it takes to put to rest four pressing questions about LNG in British Columbia.
1. What are the safety risks to people and nature?
The public is entitled to know what the environmental issues are.
What is the consequence of "fracking," the method the industry will use to produce gas for export? Fracking forces chemical-laden water underground to crack loose trapped shale gas and extract it.
How safe is LNG when being transported by pipeline, by train, or by ship? Some 15 years ago I had to research this subject of environmental safety of LNG for a speech, and determined that an LNG plant was considered to be "safe" -- however, if there was a problem, it was catastrophic. LNG plants and ships can, for example, explode with devastating force if targeted by a terrorist group. This is something the public should know about and be able to assess.
To cleverly say that LNG transported in ships poses no danger begs the question as to why Prime Minister Harper, when it was proposed that LNG laden ships from the United States pass our eastern shores, said "no way." (As one who lives within a few miles of a proposed LNG plant and on the ocean where the ships will pass I have a particular interest in that question.)
2. What are the true potential economic benefits of LNG here?
The second question which has never been addressed, at least to my satisfaction and I doubt very much to the satisfaction of the public, is what are the economic advantages in having an LNG plant?
Labour unions set their hair on fire when it's proposed that a pipeline be abandoned. This is what labour unions are supposed to do -- except the workers they're trying to attract will only be there for the construction of the pipelines and probably will be crews from out of province. Is it the same when an LNG plant is built? Is it a specialized construction meaning that very few British Columbians will have anything other than menial jobs?
What are the permanent jobs left over? The evidence is that they will be minimal. If that's the case, where is the trillion dollar economy coming from?
LNG plants are not labour intensive. They are run by very few, low wage employees. What then is the great advantage except to the people who own natural gas companies and LNG plants if almost no one in the community is employed by the operation? Where is the economic advantage to the community if no wages come out of the company?
What is British Columbia going to make out of this by way of royalty fees and taxes? Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikoforuk, an expert in such matters, makes the point that taxes on the company income are illusory since most of that income will likely be spirited out of province before the taxman gets anywhere near it!
Companies will resist unto death a tax on the gross profits, meaning that whatever percentage the government and a company agree upon may well be illusory.
The point is that the public of British Columbia should know with some precision just what money is coming in to B.C.'s coffers from the LNG industry. We know that about the lumber industry and the mining industry and other industries. Why not LNG?
International energy companies are pretty tough customers. I have written here and elsewhere, and say with confidence again, that Premier Clark and her minister Rich Coleman are way over their heads dealing with these people. Neither of them have any background whatsoever to indicate an ability to negotiate on matters of complicated industry and high finance with multinational energy corporations.
3. Who is Premier Clark really working to serve?
There is a more important point, I think. Any fair reading of what has happened and what is likely to happen indicates that Premier Clark has a deep personal and political stake in this issue.
That stake means that the well-being of the province she is elected to serve is subservient to the selfish desire of the BC Liberals to obscure their absurd and grossly irresponsible 2013 promises and get elected in 2017 anyway.
The premier's concern is not that the environmental questions be raised and answered nor that we look too closely at what, if any, economic advantages LNG will bring. Her concern now is that she has committed to this trillion dollar industry with its hundred billion dollar "prosperity fund" and the quick greenlighting of one or more LNG plants. She must somehow deal with this in an effective political way by the next election in 2017.
Let me spell it out. The premier's primary motivation at this point is not the well-being of the province of British Columbia but her own political skin.
Harsh, but in my view an inescapable inference.
4. Will Premier Clark come clean with the public and put experts in charge?
The responsible thing for the premier to do is to back off and appoint professional negotiators to deal with the matter from here on. She should immediately demand that the ministry of environment undertake a full independent review, with full public involvement of all of the many and serious environmental issues involved. At the same time the finance minister should be instructed to commission an independent report on what the economics of an LNG industry in British Columbia truly are.
Properly handling this matter and making a full disclosure to the public requires a premier and government whose only concern is the long term well-being of the people they serve.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that the principal concern of Premier Christy Clark is her own well-being rather than ours.