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Energy and Resources B.C. looks forward to decision on Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal

The site for the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG project, with Lelu Island to the left and Ridley Island to the right.

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B.C. Deputy Premier Rich Coleman believes in the long-term prospects for exporting liquefied natural gas from British Columbia, saying patience is a virtue during an industry slump.

Pacific NorthWest LNG, led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, is a high-profile consortium that will be closely watched in 2017.

Mr. Coleman, who is also Natural Gas Development Minister, said based on his discussions with Petronas management, a final investment decision will be made in the summer of 2017. Assuming Pacific NorthWest LNG sticks to its timetable, the co-owners could potentially make an announcement roughly three months after the B.C. election is held on May 9, 2017.

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Premier Christy Clark's B.C. Liberals campaigned hard to promote LNG in the 2013 provincial election, but have played down expectations over the past year amid a global glut of the fuel.

Pacific NorthWest LNG executives have budgeted $11.4-billion to construct an export terminal on Lelu Island, located near Prince Rupert in northwestern British Columbia. "You have to get the numbers and then you have to sit down with your partners and see if the contracts work. It's a lot of work," Mr. Coleman said in a year-end interview.

Mr. Coleman, who met with Petronas executives in Malaysia in October, said the venture's officials are reviewing more than 190 conditions attached to the federal government's approval of the project in September.

"When I was in Malaysia earlier this fall, it was very clear they want to get to 'yes' on this thing but they really do have some due diligence to do," he said. "They are looking at their design. They're going to try and drive their costs down."

Spencer Sproule, Pacific NorthWest LNG's senior adviser of corporate affairs, said an ongoing review will stretch into 2017. "During this time, the project is continuing to work with area First Nations, stakeholders and regulators to manage any potential impacts through mitigation measures and design optimization," he said.

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British Columbia has only one project slated to begin exporting LNG within four years, falling short of rosy forecasts from the provincial Liberal government that there would be three terminals operating by the end of 2020.

Woodfibre LNG, privately owned by Singapore-based RGE Pte. Ltd., is scheduled to begin construction in 2017 – the lone project so far to decide that it is still worthwhile to build, despite sharply lower prices for the fuel in Asia.

Woodfibre LNG is a small-scale venture with capital costs estimated at $1.6-billion, to be based near Squamish, B.C., located 65 kilometres north of Vancouver.

The B.C. Liberal government is hoping that it is not a matter of if, but when, major projects finally forge ahead, notably Pacific NorthWest LNG and Royal Dutch Shell PLC-led LNG Canada.

In July, LNG Canada delayed its decision on whether to proceed with its plans in Kitimat, B.C., and has yet to announce a revised timeline.

While LNG Canada once employed roughly 200 people, there are still 100 staff assigned to the venture, said Andy Calitz, chief executive officer at LNG Canada. "It's still a very substantial team that is working flat out but at a sustainable holding cost," Mr. Calitz said.

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Industry players in British Columbia find themselves in a waiting game, trying to forecast how long it might take for the LNG oversupply to ease while also gauging the prospects for a rebound in energy markets in general.

"It's not only a matter of a recovery. It is a matter of a sustained recovery," Mr. Calitz said. "There is space in the market in the mid-2020s for LNG from Canada. There is time and space for the start of construction in the near future in Canada so that LNG can be supplied in the mid-2020s into Asia and into the world. It takes – round numbers – five years to construct a plant."

There have been 20 B.C. LNG ventures pitched in recent years. Industry critics, however, say all those proposals have lost their lustre under current market conditions in which the cost of producing and exporting LNG exceeds what buyers in Asia are willing to pay for the fuel.

Author Andrew Nikiforuk, a critic of rapid oil sands development in Alberta who has studied LNG, doubts there will be any B.C. terminals built after Woodfibre LNG.

"I still think it's wishful thinking. Canada has missed the short-term LNG window. The economics don't work at this point in time," Mr. Nikiforuk said. "B.C. was late in the game. And nobody can get the price they need to justify the extraction, transportation and liquefaction costs in Canada."

Another skeptic is Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based environmental think tank.

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LNG prices are unlikely to skyrocket over the next several years, rendering the fledgling B.C. LNG sector largely uneconomic, even with subsidized electricity rates, he said.

"If I were putting myself in the shoes of an LNG executive or a bank trying to decide whether to give money to one of these huge projects, it becomes harder to justify an investment because of the internal economics of the projects themselves," Mr. Williams-Derry said.

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