LNG firms look years ahead, as B.C. Liberals hope to ride gas boom to election

VICTORIA – Critics of B.C. Premier Christy Clark say her election pitch involving a lucrative liquefied natural gas industry for the province is a “fantasy,” but industry experts are siding with the premier.

Several experts within the natural gas industry said Wednesday Clark’s LNG timelines and potential financial windfalls are on target despite projections ranging between seven years and 30 years.

The Opposition New Democrats say her trillion-dollar revenue forecasts highlighted in the government’s throne speech appear based on fantasy and myth.

NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston said British Columbians should be wary of Clark’s long-range LNG plan, given her government’s poor record of hitting its recent revenue projection targets.

“The centre-piece of (Tuesday’s) speech was the empty promise of a fantasy windfall of revenue up to 30 years away,” he said.

Clark said in her government’s throne speech the LNG export possibilities represent a possible $1 trillion boost to B.C.’s gross domestic product over the next 30 years.

She announced a B.C. Prosperity Fund that will funnel between $130 billion and $260 billion in LNG royalties and taxes to the government. Clark said the fund will be used primarily to pay down the $56 billion debt, but she also mused about eliminating the sales tax.

The premier is refusing to elaborate on government plans to impose some form of royalty fee or tax on LNG fill the Prosperity Fund. She said the tax will keep B.C. competitive in the world LNG market, but also represents an opportunity to benefit the province.

Whistler-based LNG expert Zoher Meratla said companies like Chevron, Shell and Mitsubishi, who are making plans to develop LNG export terminals in northwest B.C., are making plans that extend beyond 20 years.

Meratla, who has worked on LNG plants in Qatar, Algeria and Peru and helped with the original design work on the Kitimat Chevron project, said companies are looking for stability and solid regulatory environments when investing as opposed to considering market fluctuations.

“You have to look at least 25 to 30 years ahead for LNG, simply because that’s the nature of the business,” he said. “If somebody is going to spend $5 billion you are going to look at that sort of horizon to get a return on the investment.”

Meratla said it will take time, but the LNG returns Clark is touting are available to the B.C..

Calgary-based energy consultant Geoff Hill, a partner at Deloitte, said oil and gas companies are making long-term plans when it comes to developing B.C.’s LNG export potential.

“There’s always risks in the forecast, but B.C. is far from the only place in the world that has an LNG strategy,” he said. “I think it’s a fairly safe bet.”

Hill said B.C.’s LNG export developments are attractive investment opportunities because of the huge available supply in northeast B.C., stable government and solid economy, and the potential to sell the product at much higher prices in Asia.

But potential labour shortages concern the industry and could potentially play a role in future investment decisions, he said.

Skills training and labour shortages are destined to become major issues in this spring’s election campaign as both the Liberals and NDP have staked claims as the leader in skills training.

Recent estimates of the impact of LNG development in B.C.’s north includes the creation of 39,000 jobs over the nine-year construction period and 75,000 new full-time jobs if the five facilities reach full production.

Shell Canada spokesman, whose company is also planning an LNG export terminal near Kitimat, said long-range planning is involved in developing the Asian opportunity.

“The best opportunity for the abundance of natural gas in B.C. — cost competitive natural gas — is to find its way into Asian markets,” he said.

The Liberal government promised in its September 2011 jobs plan the development of three LNG plants in northwest B.C. by 2020. That figure has since been upgraded to five plants, but the completion dates are not as firm, and the companies have yet to make their final investment decisions.

Since last year, major gas and oil companies, including Chevron and Shell have invested $6 billion in British Columbia LNG projects, including preparing export sites in the Kitimat area.

The LNG projects involve building pipelines from northeast B.C.’s natural gas fields to LNG terminals near Kitimat, where the product would be shipped to Asian markets. LNG is natural gas that is cooled to a liquid form where it can then be loaded onto tankers.

Last year, Clark said her government’s plan to export LNG to Asia is B.C.’s economic equivalent to Alberta’s oilsands.