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Giancarlo Da-Ré: Exporting our LNG is a massive economic opportunity—so why is Canada missing out?

Commentary

Last year’s Indo-Pacific Strategy earned the Trudeau government praise for its clarity and insights about Canada’s policy vis-à-vis China in particular and the Indo-Pacific region in general. It was widely seen as a new, more pragmatic foreign policy rooted in Canadian interests and a realist understanding of the geopolitical context.

The only major omission was the economic and environmental opportunities to leverage Canada’s natural gas resources to help our Asian allies meet their growing energy demands. LNG exports ought to be a crucial linchpin of the government’s regional strategy.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, LNG refers to the process of chilling natural gas into its liquid state, which is a crucial step in its transportation to overseas buyers. Exporting LNG to Asia would hit three of the five major objectives in the strategy: trade and investment; a sustainable and green future; and partnerships. It makes sense, except for the fact that we can’t technically make it happen. Canada still lacks the infrastructure required to complete the LNG process (pumping gas to a port, chilling it into its liquid form, and sending it overseas to buyers), and is therefore trapped in the North American market.

Figure: LNG shipping process

It prompts the obvious question: why does Canada, the fifth-largest natural gas producer in the world, lack this crucial infrastructure?

At a recent high-level U.S.-Canada Summit in Toronto, Greg Ebel, president & CEO of Enbridge Inc., squarely put the blame on permitting. While this is true, it’s important to pull back the curtain and explore what exactly is holding us back from developing the infrastructure.

To start, the world uses a lot of natural gas, and regasification infrastructure plans in Europe and Asia suggest it is going to use a lot more. One of the reasons for this is that many informed observers see natural gas as a bridge fuel to the low-carbon future, especially in countries like China, Japan, and India, where carbon-intensive sources like coal still dominate the energy mix. In this way, while it has been rightfully acknowledged that gas development could put upwards pressure on Canada’s provincial and federal climate targets, LNG trade could have the net effect of lowering total global emissions.

Canadian natural gas has three main advantages here: Kitimat, B.C.’s lower average temperature provides energy efficiency advantages over the U.S. Gulf Coast (USGC), Qatar, and Australia; Canadian LNG projects have a far lower carbon intensity than the global average; and the direct route from the Kitimat port to Asian markets would shave about 10 days off the shipping time from the USGC, saving labour and fuel costs while reducing emissions.

Even though Canada’s natural gas abundance and high environmental standards make it desirable, while also providing high-paying jobs and boosting GDP, we lack the infrastructure to compete on the global market. LNG Canada is the closest project to completion (about 75 percent) and is not expected to be operational until 2025. There appear to be three major underlying challenges that have contributed to the LNG problem in Canada.

The first relates to economics and engineering. It’s uneconomic to pipe natural gas from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin all the way to the East Coast for export to Europe. The recent Repsol LNG cancellation in Saint John, New Brunswick was a case in point. That leaves the West Coast. What is already a great engineering challenge is then magnified by the rugged nature of BC’s North Coast, through which hundreds of kilometres of pipeline must weave. One 1.4-kilometers stretch of the Coastal GasLink pipeline with a 700-metre change in elevation required a cable crane and gondola system to transport workers and pieces. 

The second relates to relations with First Nations communities, who have significant influence on the construction of linear infrastructure projects through unceded lands in Northeast B.C. While some First Nations groups like the Lax Kw’alaams have voiced opposition to LNG projects, others like the Haisla Nation are supportive (the Haisla Nation were recently announced the majority owners of the $3-billion Cedar LNG project in B.C). There have also been criticisms of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAF) for not having engaged in meaningful consultations with First Nations on large-scale energy infrastructure projects. The Federal Court of Appeal’s overturning of the Northern Gateway project proposal (2016) and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project (2021) both cited this as the main issue. The failure to abide by a constitutional duty to consult First Nations groups is both a blow to energy infrastructural projects and a stain on Canada’s reconciliation efforts.

The third challenge relates to stringent environmental regulations in B.C. Because the climate policy space is so dynamic, LNG investors and shareholders must abide by current environmental regulations while also working to anticipate new ones. As a testament to this, the province just announced its new energy action framework, requiring all proposed LNG facilities in or entering the environmental assessment process to pass an emissions test with a credible plan to be net-zero by 2030. This would be great if there was clean hydroelectricity available to power the liquefaction terminals that otherwise use natural gas. However, there isn’t adequate transmission infrastructure to get clean electricity to those facilities. B.C. Hydro’s own CEO estimates that it will take eight to 10 years to devise and construct such a major transmission project. Unless my math is incorrect, there are only seven years between now and 2030, making it extremely difficult to meet the regulatory requirements.

There exists a conundrum: while hitting high environmental standards would make Canada’s LNG more desirable on the global natural gas market, it necessarily takes longer to meet these conditions, which leads to a slower pace of infrastructure development. As time passes and environmental regulations become more stringent, there is a risk of falling into a cycle that prevents both the completion of LNG infrastructure projects and any raising of environmental standards for global natural gas trading.

So, what is there to do about it? Besides untangling the permit web, here are a few suggestions.

The federal government needs to clear the air on their support (or lack thereof) for LNG projects in Canada. The use of language in the Indo-Pacific Strategy like “energy infrastructure and energy export” without explicitly mentioning “LNG” ultimately depresses investor confidence, which is critical considering the additional expenses incurred from engineering challenges and electricity transmission infrastructure expansions.

It is also clear that First Nations communities are key to the successful completion of any LNG project. It is unclear whether CIRNAF’s 2011 version of Guidelines for Federal Officials to Fulfill the Duty to Consult has been updated with recommendations from the HoC Standing Committee on Natural Resources 2019 Report, “International Best Practices for Indigenous Engagement in Major Energy Projects: Building Partnerships on the Path to Reconciliation.” Beyond that, rather than simply working to achieve a constitutional duty, economic partnerships and co-ownerships with First Nations should be promoted in all LNG development projects. 

Finally, we need to rapidly solve the clean electricity delivery problem to B.C.’s North Coast. If B.C. Hydro can’t build transmission infrastructure in time, perhaps there are other options, like nuclear. Small modular reactors are expected to be a source of reliable, energy-dense, emissions-free energy for locations too remote to deliver hydroelectricity. That said, they cost between $200M and $300M, and the first one in Canada isn’t expected to be constructed until 2028. Nonetheless, in the absence of regulatory changes, new LNG projects will require a fast-tracking of innovative clean power solutions.

The enormity of the LNG problem necessitates bold solutions. Failure to act risks missing a valuable opportunity to boost GDP, advance Indigenous reconciliation, bolster international relations, and accelerate the global transition to lower carbon energy.

Brent H. Cameron: Handouts without hope won’t help Canada’s poor escape poverty

Commentary

The Trudeau government frequently touts its record on reducing Canada’s poverty rates due mainly to the Canada Child Benefit. Its claims mostly stand up to scrutiny. Targeted public spending has measurably reduced poverty according to an arithmetic conception of poverty as a solely materialistic state of being.

Yet many of the academics, pundits and politicians who talk about poverty lack a textured understanding of the individuals and families who experience poverty in materialistic and non-materialistic terms. Canadians in poverty have reason to be a bit skeptical of the second and third-generation Laurentians who have cast themselves as tribunes of the less fortunate, gesticulating their anger over the plight of the poor whilst brandishing $5,000 wristwatches.

There’s a verse in the Christian Bible that quotes Jesus as saying “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” This is a rather harsh rebuke that I cannot comment on, but I’ll say that an equally onerous challenge is for a rich person to understand the experience of being poor—with the noted exception of those rare individuals who manages to pull off a Horatio Alger-worthy rise from rags to riches.

A richer, more textured understanding of poverty that saw struggling Canadians as individuals with complex sets of needs, interests and aspirations rather than mere statistics would cause the government to place as much attention on creating the conditions for hope as it does on the clever design of income-support programs.

I grew up what in hindsight would be considered a lower-middle-class environment. Our lives were marked by precious little money and moments when the creditors might be a step away, but a stable home with two consistently working parents who employed every effort to improve our prospects. Staying on one side of the ledger book was as much a stroke of luck as it was a feat of indefatigable effort.

I paid for university by selling a car that I restored and took side jobs like driving cab. Even with that, I couldn’t afford textbooks for the first two years, so the reserve reading room—where assigned readings for every course could be had for a period of three hours—became my friend. But my parents gave every spare penny they could, gladly and cheerfully. I graduated and became the first member of my family to get a degree, beating a cousin by one year. But I also readily admit my luck. 

My father, on the other hand, knew what real poverty was. He left a troubled home, quit school, and hitchhiked to Toronto where he got a job with a moving company. Until he had earned enough to pay for a room in a boarding house, he banked most of his meal allowances and slept in either one of the trucks or on a couch in the company’s storage warehouse. He was 12 years old at the time.

It is because of these things that I feel emboldened to comment on the nature of poverty. Yes, it is the lack of money, of food, of lodging, and of opportunity. But those are the things you see: the outward symptoms of the syndrome. What you don’t see—and what our white knight wannabes do not appreciate—is the lack of something we call “hope.”

Hope is subtle and nuanced. The transmission mechanism for public policy is complex. At some level, it requires that policymakers distinguish between “transitory poverty” and persistent poverty” and recognize that the messages and policies to make progress on both will necessary differ. It also demands that they recognize that while policy must confront systemic factors, it needs to inculcate a sense of agency and the possibility of a different and better future. A “hand up” rather than merely a “handout” may sound a bit cliched but it actually expresses a deep insight about empowering people rather than merely solving for their basic needs.

Want to address systemic poverty? Then policymakers have to think beyond materialism. They need to create the conditions for hope. They must seek to enable people like my dad to envision a future better than a couch in a warehouse. My dad would have eagerly taken the quarterly cheque for $250 set out in this year’s federal budget. But it was the hope of a better tomorrow that he really desired. 

Ottawa’s latest budget actually had plenty of money for Canadians in poverty. The government’s poverty reduction strategy isn’t suffering from a lack of dollars. But it is ultimately lacking a vision of how to help people take control of their lives and climb the ladder from poverty to the middle class.

Our prime minister once commented on Canada becoming the world’s first “post-national” country. I do not know whether this is true, but it is becoming clear that we are heading toward becoming a post-hope one.