James Moore, the senior federal minister for B.C., popped up at a news conference with Premier Christy Clark last week to tout liquefied natural gas. Coincidentally, the timeline that was set in motion that day could land a deal – a very big final investment decision – in time for the federal election this fall.
Ottawa still has a significant role to play in landing the $36-billion Pacific Northwest LNG investment, and it is a good bet the Conservatives believe votes are to be had for helping secure that project.
The chief investor, Malaysia's state-owned energy firm Petronas, expects to make a tentative final investment decision in the next few weeks. But before anyone books a sod-turning photo opportunity, the company needs to have its bankers on board to finance the project. And that real final investment decision will not happen until federal regulatory approval has been granted.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has been examining the proposal for an export terminal on Lelu Island in Prince Rupert since the spring of 2013, and is expected to deliver a draft report this summer. A final recommendation for a decision by federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq is pencilled in for early October – just ahead of election day.
But it is unlikely the current federal cabinet will convene any time after Labour Day, which means it will need to accelerate that timeline if it wants Petronas to commit. Officials say it is possible to secure a federal green light this summer, although that leaves no room for further delays in the environmental review process.
Mr. Moore was on hand when the Premier signed a memorandum of understanding last week in Vancouver that inches the project forward. The pact sets the clock ticking for a final investment decision on Pacific Northwest LNG by September.
Mr. Moore was not there to sign anything. He just wanted people to know how keen he is to help.
"It's important that British Columbians understand, that the federal government understands ... that we need to stand with the province of British Columbia as you show leadership in moving forward in developing not just this particular project, but ... an entire industry for the benefit of all of Canada," he said.
"Of course, the environmental assessment is still ongoing, but we want to get to a yes."
That ongoing assessment is not entirely a political decision. The federal environmental review process is where the difficult issues around First Nations' concerns about the project have been left to be untangled.
The Lax Kw'alaams people, whose traditional territories include the land where Petronas wants to build its export terminal, rejected a $1.1-billion offer from the company because they are concerned the project will harm the eelgrass beds where juvenile salmon of the Skeena River shelter.
Changing the design could win the band's consent, but it would mean further delays. Even if the Lax Kw'alaams are persuaded to change their minds, other aboriginal communities along the pipeline route and in the northeast corner of the province, which would be the source of the natural gas, are registering objections.
The B.C. Liberal government has made no secret of its political ambitions around LNG, and Ms. Clark needs to see shovels in the ground before the 2017 provincial election. If this project does not move ahead, 18 other proposals are on the books.
For the federal Conservatives to benefit, the window of opportunity is a tight squeeze. Their bedrock vote in British Columbia can be roughly described as the communities that favour natural resource development. Mr. Moore and his fellow Conservatives in B.C. know from the NDP victory in Alberta that they cannot count on traditional voting patterns to carry them to victory. They cannot skate through this election.
Helping the Clark government secure an LNG industry seems like a made-to-order campaign script for the federal Conservatives. But getting to yes will not be easy. The path forward requires dealing straight up with the genuine environmental concerns of aboriginal communities. Friendly press conferences with the Premier might earn Mr. Moore an eight-second spot on the evening news, but meeting with the First Nations would be more productive.