Liquefied natural gas is the British Columbia economic opportunity Alberta is cheering for.
Many Alberta connections to the LNG dream are obvious – the province is home to oil-service companies hired to drill all those northeastern B.C. gas wells that would feed a new $11.4-billion export facility on the coast. It's also the headquarters of TransCanada Corp., tapped to construct pipelines connecting the two.
But there are more fundamental reasons for the hard-hit energy sector and Premier Rachel Notley to take heart in this week's federal approval of Petronas's LNG project. For one, it shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals are not ideologically opposed to bolstering access to new markets for energy resources. It also represents a chance – at this point, it's still a small one – that natural gas prices could improve to a point where the fuel can offer a meaningful contribution to Alberta's finances again.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who has expended considerable political capital selling the province's LNG potential to voters and investors, lauded the federal sign-off, which could lead to the first green light for a project after years of uncertainty.
However, Petronas, Malaysia's state-owned oil company, will take its time examining more than 190 conditions attached to the approval.
It will also crunch the numbers on LNG market conditions, which have worsened as several projects started up in other countries and prices for the commodity slumped in Asia. It's a massive gamble to proceed with what will be a series of connected megaprojects – the LNG plant near Prince Rupert, B.C., gas fields and pipelines – worth a dizzying $36-billion. There have even been reports that Petronas may try selling its stake.
Putting aside the very real completion risks, the Alberta-based energy sector appreciated the positive reinforcement on the export front, at least in terms of government intentions amid debates over Canada's environmental performance and aboriginal relations.
At the start of its tenure, the Liberal government made it clear that it wanted the National Energy Board to update its review processes with more environmental content. It threw the fate of Enbridge Inc.'s long-delayed Northern Gateway pipeline to the northern coast into limbo by moving ahead with a ban on oil-tanker traffic in the region. Energy executives often complain that Ottawa is not doing enough to advance the export aims of their industry, saying that has driven away investors.
The federal approval for the LNG project has given the oil patch some optimism that the government may also give a nod to Kinder Morgan Canada's $6.8-billion Trans Mountain expansion, which would offer major new access to overseas markets for Alberta's oil sands-derived crude. This is a bet on body language, however, as there are no guarantees amid staunch opposition by the mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby, B.C., as well as some First Nations and a host of green groups.
Meanwhile, Alberta's budgetary woes are well known, with this year's deficit now pegged at $10.9-billion, largely because of the energy downturn that is entering its third year.
As recently as the past decade, the energy boom drove multibillion-dollar surpluses, and natural gas was a big driver of the windfalls. In 2007, the North American gas market feared shortages – so much so that plans were sketched out to import LNG. Prices surged.
In 2007-08, Alberta pocketed a $4-billion surplus, as gas averaged $5.88 a gigajoule. Gas royalties topped $5-billion, about half the province's non-renewable resource revenue. That was just at the start of the U.S. shale-gas revolution, which would send prices tumbling.
In Finance Minister Joe Ceci's current budget, gas royalties are estimated at $362-million, 17 per cent of non-renewable resource revenues, with the average price estimated at $1.90 a gigajoule.
Hard-hit producers have clawed back billions of dollars in drilling because of low prices, and have held out hope that new West Coast LNG facilities will sop up excess supply and bolster regional markets. However, the years it has taken to get to the first approval had put the conversation on the back burner.
LNG is still a long shot, but for Alberta it's a shot nonetheless. It hasn't had many of those lately.