"The window is closing down." So believes Thierry Bros, one of Europe's and the world's leading experts in natural gas, about British Columbia's ability to build a liquefied natural gas industry.
If Mr. Bros, who was recently in Ottawa, is correct, then British Columbia risks arriving too late for the world's LNG party. LNG projects are proceeding in Australia, the United States and elsewhere. In B.C., they face regulatory delays, long negotiations with aboriginals that sometimes go nowhere and rising costs.
The world is not waiting on British Columbia. A liquefaction plant will shortly open in Texas, bringing to five the number of LNG export facilities operational or being built in the United States. Federal regulators have received applications for 15 more. Further projects are in the planning stage. This explosion of activity relates partly to increasing world demand and partly to the U.S. shale gas revolution, which has boosted natural gas production by more than eightfold in five years.
Seven LNG facilities have received final investment decision (FID) in Australia, which is set to be the world's largest LNG exporter by 2018. Aussie gas will arrive in Asia, which is where B.C. would like to send its gas.
Africa is expanding its production, although the lack of rules and infrastructure will slow development down in Tanzania and Mozambique. Argentina has huge reserves, but that country's crazy currency rules and Peronista-type government will hamper development. Russia, of course, has enormous reserves and has signed two large gas export deals with China that could represent about 17 per cent of that country's demand.
Malaysia and Indonesia are large gas producers, so they cannot be Asia markets for B.C.'s LNG. Japan and South Korea could be, but those countries will not be willing to pay any premium prices for LNG with so many supplies coming on stream. Japan will get some of its nuclear reactors running again after the Fukushima disaster, thereby reducing the temporary upsurge in demand for gas. A good LNG market might be India, but Qatar and Africa are both closer to India than B.C.
The Asian market is therefore somewhat softer than just a few years ago, and Australian, U.S. and Russian gas will get there first. Maybe there will be room for B.C. gas, but the outlook is distinctly less rosy than when LNG was first touted as a boom industry for B.C.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark successfully campaigned on making B.C. a big player in LNG. In 2013, she predicted a full-fledged LNG export industry would be in operation by 2020, coursing $4.3-billion to $8.7-billion yearly into the provincial treasury. B.C. would be debt-free courtesy of LNG, she exclaimed.
Alas for Ms. Clark, reality has set in. Her government has already halved a proposed LNG tax. (Ottawa also adjusted its tax regime to try to help the industry's prospects). Last week, her government signed a development deal with Pacific Northwest LNG, a consortium led by Petronas of Malaysia, offering the consortium further concessions and guarantees.
The development deal, however, is but one step in what has already been a laborious path toward a $36-billion project. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has just restarted its review of the project after an 11-week delay. When a draft report is available, public comment and preparing a final report will eat up more time.
In addition, although several local aboriginal groups are in favour of the Pacific Northwest project, the Lax Kw'alaams band voted overwhelmingly against it, citing threats to juvenile salmon grounds. If the band maintains its opposition but the government authorizes the project, it's easy to imagine a court challenge relying on a recent Supreme Court ruling that gives aboriginals de facto or de jure veto power over projects on territories they claim.
The impact of the Supreme Court ruling will play itself out throughout B.C. where there is a multiplicity of aboriginal claims, sometimes overlapping. The aboriginal dimension to LNG (and other resource industries) will likely raise questions among prospective investors about the uncertainties and delays of doing business in B.C. Some chiefs and their communities want jobs, training and money that accompany projects, including LNG; other communities are more content to remain as they are.
Add together these factors – changing world demand and supplies, the regulatory and aboriginal dimensions of doing business in B.C. – and the recent headline on an Oilprice.com story seems appropriate: Is the Canadian LNG Export Dream Dead?