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BC Premier Christy Clark in Victoria, Tuesday March 27, 2012.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. Liberal government is deeming natural gas a "clean" source of energy to clear the way for the development of a liquefied natural gas extraction project in northern British Columbia, reversing a key environmental policy of the Gordon Campbell era.

In a speech to a business audience Thursday, Premier Christy Clark said natural gas will be classified as a clean fuel when used to power liquefied natural gas extraction plants in northern B.C.

The Premier did not provide further details on how B.C. could meet its goals for clean energy and greenhouse-gas reduction were such power plants to be built.

However, later in the day Energy Minister Richard Coleman said the definition of "clean" in the Clean Energy Act would be amended to include certain kinds of natural gas-fired plants. That is significant because that law commits B.C. to get 93 per cent of its electricity from clean energy sources.

"We can do a regulation that allows us to clarify it so it works under our definition, and, thereby, not affect our 93 per cent commitment to clean energy in B.C. that's one of the requirements that affects how we buy and produce power," he said.

The plan was hailed by the business community but left a leading environmentalist "incredulous and flabbergasted."

In a speech to the Business Council of B.C., Ms. Clark promised a new regulation that will define natural gas as clean energy "under certain circumstances" in order to bolster the LNG industry Ms. Clark has seen as providing jobs and revenues central to her jobs plan.

Ms. Clark, seeking political traction ahead of the 2013 election in which her Liberals will seek a fourth term, has set out the target of having three LNG plants operating in B.C. by 2020 – a goal that, if achieved, would generate billions in investment, thousands of jobs and $1-billion a year in ongoing government revenues.

The Premier said the regulation will only apply to natural gas used to support LNG development in the north, won't change the definition of power use for the rest of the province and will only apply to power generation that meets world-leading environmental standards on emissions.

"This is consistent with our comprehensive natural gas strategy and is also consistent with our efforts to use renewable energy," Ms. Clark said. "We continue, absolutely, to be committed to making sure we are using local, renewable energy."

Ms. Clark later told reporters the change is needed to "power up" the LNG industry, and will also create LNG products for such markets as China that will diminish their reliance on coal and "other dirty sources of energy."

NDP energy critic John Horgan said the announcement is an on-the-fly reversal of five years of energy policy, and leaves unanswered the question of how the province would account for the additional emissions of greenhouse gases from such power plants.

The BC Chamber of Commerce hailed Ms. Clark's move as a "timely announcement" because BC Hydro does not have the current capacity to feed proposed LNG plants such as those in Kitimat.

But Karen Campbell, staff lawyer for Ecojustice, said she was "incredulous and flabbergasted" at the announcement because it does nothing to change the impact of natural gas. "It's like putting lipstick on a pig – like calling an apple an orange," she said. "I can't understand how you would think natural gas development would be conceived as clean energy."

Mark Jaccard, a professor in resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, said he was skeptical about Ms. Clark's assertion that natural gas will decrease greenhouse-gas emissions from coal use in China.

Prof. Jaccard said in an e-mail that "I work with the leading global energy modelers, and none of them find this result. She has no evidence to the contrary and yet makes up this story that natural gas exports are somehow miraculously clean."

Mr. Coleman said liquefied natural gas takes a substantial amount of electricity.

"If we don't have an affordable source of electricity for liquefied natural gas, we're not going to attract the investment we need to make this thing successful in a big way for B.C.," he said.

Asked how natural gas could suddenly be declared clean, Mr. Coleman said, "Some of us always thought it was clean as a transitional fuel. There was always this debate which has taken place in and out of government."

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