The federal and B.C. governments have reached an accord on skills training and immigration that Premier Christy Clark says will help spur development of LNG plants in the province by keeping a lid on labour costs.
Ms. Clark travelled to the national capital on Monday with a delegation of business and First Nations leaders, as well as a quarter of her cabinet, to highlight the potential that the production and export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has for her province and for the country. In a reception for Conservative MPs and other federal officials, she said the nascent LNG industry could rival Alberta's oil sands in terms of generating jobs and tax revenue for governments.
But industry analysts warn that British Columbia is falling behind in the global race to supply East Asia as countries like Australia, the United States, Russia and even Mozambique pursue those lucrative markets. They cite two key concerns: the government's uncertain fiscal regime and the potential for crippling inflation in labour costs given the small pool of skilled labour already heavily in demand in Western Canada.
"We need to make sure we do everything we can to take advantage of this opportunity so we don't miss it," Ms. Clark told her federal audience, as she announced an agreement that would see the B.C. government work with Ottawa to increase skills training in schools and in aboriginal communities. As well, they would co-operate on fast-tracking the arrival of temporary foreign workers when the domestic market can't supply the necessary employees.
"Our commitment is this: British Columbians first, Canadians second and then, when we have maxed-out every opportunity to put Canadians to work on these projects, we will need to begin to look overseas for temporary workers," she told reporters on Parliament Hill. At peak construction times, the demand will almost certainly exceed the domestic supply of workers, she added.
The announcement with B.C. came as Employment Minister Jason Kenney said Ottawa now has positive written pledges from all provinces and territories about delivering the government's new training subsidy.
It expects the first Canada Job Grant to be delivered either this summer or fall.
Mr. Kenney said the LNG industry could create 100,000 jobs and generate tens of billions of dollars in investment.
"This is a win, win, win for Canadians," he said. "But if there's one barrier to realizing the vision of prosperity through energy exports, particularly LNG on the West Coast, what we've heard today is that barrier is projected skills gaps in those industries."
The agreement with B.C. covered not only skills training but immigration. Federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Ottawa will work with the province and employers to recruit skilled workers from abroad when there is no Canadian who can do the job, and will streamline the approval process to ensure it does not extend longer than six months.
Business people in the B.C. delegation applauded the agreement, saying uncertainty over labour costs is a major hurdle for companies considering projects.
"Labour issues are of a significant concern for the company, so having this dialogue is extremely important," said David Keane, vice-president of BG Group, a Britain-based energy company that is one of the largest LNG marketers in the world. BG is leading one of a dozen consortia vying to build plants on B.C.'s northern coast.
Mr. Keane said B.C. remains an attractive source for LNG, given the scale of the natural-gas resource and the proximity to Asian markets. "They're not going to want to put all their eggs in one basket, so I think they are going to be looking to have some supply out of B.C.," he said.
BG expects to make a final decision on whether to proceed in late 2015. Meanwhile, Malaysia-based Petronas is one of the leading proponents and is expected to signal its intention this year.
With a report from Bill Curry