The Politics of LNG

By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Oct 16, 2016

“Times have changed, my friends. Social license is more important than ever. Governments may be able to issue permits, but only communities can grant permission.”

Justin Trudeau spoke those words in Calgary three years ago but they have echoed ever since in Canada. During the recent election, they found a special resonance in Squamish for those who believed Justin was capable of a new kind of politics.  Any doubts seemed to be quelled by the new Member of Parliament Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, who held three town hall meeting to hear people’s view on Woodfibre LNG.

The recent decision by the federal government, however, to grant approval for LNG seemed to have stunned those who had hopes the Liberal government would quash the project. Did anti-LNG activists read too much into pre-election statements by the prime minister and the member of Parliament? Or was this a calculated political move raise hopes to garner votes? Is Trudeau the new Harper?

Squamish resident Carmen Harper supports the Woodfibre LNG plant and feels the company has heard the concerns of the residents and made changes to their plans to address environmental concerns. But she says it’d be wrong to read too much into his statements because he never publicly opposed the LNGproject.

 

“I think he was on the fence with this decision. Trudeau has been raised in the apolitical environment and he knows that to make a statement for or against something would be political suicide for him and he ducked out on making a statement for or against the project,” she says.

People who opposed the project may have missed his diplomatic approach, Carmen says, adding that the Liberal MP Jones also didn’t have a strong stance on the issue.

“In the political sense, Pam was trying to tread lightly. I remember I went to a debate at Quest, and someone asked her about LNG and she took the least amount of time to answer the question and the answer really was we will have to wait and see what the community has to say,” Carmen says.

Evan Drygas supports the LNG project and says Trudeau’s comment about community granting permission rings true in Squamish.   

“Our community’s support for Woodfibre LNG was evident during the last municipal election where 60 per cent of the total votes cast were for candidates who were in favor of the project. Social media pages in support of Woodfibre LNG have more likes than pages that are opposed to it,” he says.

Engineer and Squamish resident Craig McConnell says the federal government is trying to strike a balance between the election promises and the economic realities of Western Canada. Much of the western Canada’s economy is a function of energy resources and that is not lost on the new federal government, especially now that it’s on a deficit spending spree, he says. 
“They are going into a multi-year deficit situation, but they know they have to turn them around with all the promise of infrastructure spending right across the country and there has to be a balance between deficits spending and then bringing the economy back into a balanced budget. They are well aware that big revenue generator from tax perspective in the country has always been in the resource industry,” Craig says.
International energy pricing isn’t in the hands of Canada alone and provincial level politics also plays into the decision. Coal is the worst offender and the federal government has pressurized Alberta to eliminate cold fire plans by 2030 but with this comes the need to look at other cleaner energy sources such as natural gas, he says. Still, Craig says the environment minister, Catherine McKenna, must have surprised a lot of people with the decision.  

“This is what happens when a federal minister looks at the file in some detail and realises that there has been a lot of investment and work in the environmental review process. The work has been done but it’s not like the minister has given a cartblanche stamp of approval as there are 150 conditions that need to be met,” he says. 
Chris Pettingill, who has opposed the project, said he was disappointed in the decision but not surprised, given the influence of corporate lobbyists working to push the project in Ottawa. He says WLNG wasn’t on top of Trudeau’s list of priorities but says people’s hopes were raised by some of the statement made by him and the MP Pamela Goldmith Jones. “People’s hopes were raised, but even the MP didn’t realize until the second or third town hall happened how strong the opposition was but that was too late to stop whatever balls were rolling in Ottawa,” he said.
Chris said he wouldn’t expect the Liberal government to fade out the negative legacy of the Harper government in such limited time. He believes the government will usher a new change, despite the WLNG setback. 
“I’m sure they will make change. There is a lot of Harper people left and his rules they have to follow. So, they can’t change anything over time. I’m not ready to throw in the towel but I’m going to push them hard to do better than they have done so far” he says.
Local LNG critic Les MacDonald was dismayed by the federal government approval. He had been inspired by Trudeau’s comment about communities giving approvals and three town hall meeting by the local MP had raised his hope. He calls the approval a terrible loss of confidence. 
“We had three town hall meetings and it was overwhelmingly obvious that none of the communities in Howe Sound support the LNG project. They said that they are trying to get the public trust in the project but it was a big failure and they ended up losing more trust than they had when they began,” he said.

Les said he doesn’t understand why politicians break their promises once they are in office. “I’d like to believe that politicians will deliver on what they say or whoever they vote for them, but the reality is quite often they back pedal on those promises. Maybe it’s a system we don’t understand but when they get involved deeply as they are, it’s almost impossible to not to be corrupt in it,” Les says. 

And still, he would like to believe in Trudeau even if it’s out of desperation.

“I believe in him because I’m desperate to believe that there is still some kind of ethical basis to this person and to the party and the government. It’s probably naive on my part. We went to the climate summit in Paris and bragged on how we are going to participate but everything we are doing right now is the opposites of commitment we made,” he says. For project supporter Geri Avis, the approval of the project with the new government shows the high standards of scrutiny it had to go through. She says the project passed through rigorous federal and provincial assessment process and the proponents still have conditions they need to meet. To suggest there is corruption is simply ridiculous, she says.

“That is a heck of a lot of collusion and that is a conspiracy theory beyond belief that everyone is bought. Every industry has to pass the enviro assessment, federally and provincially. The rules are there to follow and to say this wasn’t a valid assessment is just childish,” she says. 

Geri says it’s important to remember that politicians don’t assess projects but they merely sign off on the recommendations of the scientists and environmental experts. It’s the Liberal government making the decision, not the Harper government which many believed muzzled scientists.

“This is a liberal government making the decision and that speaks volumes. This is a government that looked at assessment and didn’t get involved as Harper’s ministers might have because they are trying to do things in a more honest way,” Geri says.

The federal approval of the project seems to have had a strange impact on our local politicians, especially those who never lost an opportunity to slam it in high-pitched tones before the elections. A voluble anti-LNG council candidate in 2014, Patricia Heintzman has barely made any public statements on the recent federal approval of LNG. Her puzzling silence is in stark contrast to her passionate anti-LNG tirades.  

When the Squamish Chief newspaper asked council candidates to name one project they’d like scrapped, she named Woodfibre LNG and Fortis Gas pipeline. She was effusive, clear and forthcoming on her stance on LNG before the elections.

“Will we benefit economically? It will likely be negative over the long term or zero sum because of lost opportunity, action/reaction. Imported LNG-specific workers will fill most of the 100 permanent jobs. Tax revenue is expected around $2 million…hard to resist for some. Is LNG a sustainable economy? It’s trending towards a bust…it’s a buyers’ market and we are selling. Will it negatively impact the environment and strain out social structure? It will clearly have a negative effect locally. Fracking practices are deleterious. There will likely be significant stress on health, policing and social services with temporary workers for over one year….yes, there will be an economic bump in that time followed by a downturn. Is the project worth it? NO,” she said in a response to a question about LNG during the elections.

She called for a referendum on the issue and also voiced her concerns about the owner Sukanto Tanato. 
“We should not, in my mind, be doing business with people like that. It’s difficult for the community to have trust that this person will not cut corners or be disrespectful to our environment,” she told the National Observor newspaper.
“I don’t have the power…we don’t have jurisdiction but we can ask the right questions which I think our Mayor and council are not asking about the process. We may not have the jurisdiction, but you have to speak your mind,” she said before the election.

But the once loquacious Patricia has reverted to monosyllables when it comes to the federal approval of LNG, keeping words to the bare minimum for reasons best known to her.

While she was unabashedly opposed to the project before the elections, she now wants more time to find out if the project is good or bad for Squamish. Her terse responses only add mystery to her position and her future course of action. Here are some of her responses after the federal approval.

  1. Are you convinced the project is good for Squamish.
  2. No
  3. Do you think we need still more time and research to know how good or bad it is for Squamish?
  4. Yes
  5. Do you have any power or way now to block Woodfibre LNG if you want to, after the review that you are doing
  6. No
  7. Since you were so strongly opposed to Woodfibre LNG, do you agree that as a Mayor you have been unable to stop it
    Council has no jurisdiction with regard to approvals.

 

What explains the loss of words from a once verbose Heintzman when it comes to LNG ? The answer may lie for some in one word: politics. Carmen Harper says the Mayor’s silence is a tacit acceptance, if not an approval of the project. “I’ve heard nothing from her and that silence is an acceptance. She was adamantly against it but to not speak now shows she is already changing her mind on the whole thing. It’s unfortunate that she isn’t supporting voters who voted for her and I think she is letting down her own supporters by not speaking up now,” Carmen says.

Carmen says those who opposed the project before the elections were able to win a lot of votes in the community as they cashed in on the anti-LNG sentiment. Perhaps the Mayor should have independently studied and investigated the project before opposing it, she says.  Craig McConnell says the Liberal party MLA, Jordan Sturdy has been consistent in his views on the project, but that is not true of Mayor Patricia Heintzman.  

“She is a politician and a veteran politician and I think she is pretty wily as to how to perform the balancing act. The left hand doesn’t always do what the right hand is doing. Ultimately, she needs the needs to diversify her tax revenue scheme as right now, our largest employer is the District of Squamish and that isn’t anything to be proud of in any community,” he says.

Craig says Heintzman knows her options are limited when Squamish Nation, BC government and the federal government have given the conditional approval and her silence could indicate she doesn’t want to be left out as being the only politician that is on record being so strongly opposed. She is probably considering the conditions that are present on three level and may be seeing what she ca do there but much of her stance was only symbolic,” he adds.

“I think much of what she did was symbolic, leading up to various conditional approvals, symbolic to the extent of appealing to the ideological activists that she has always felt are the key stone of her support. She has always know that the district doesn’t have any control, because except for some permits like construction permits, or land use permits,” he says. People who oppose the project have been writing letters to newspapers and their elected politicians and holding meetings after the federal approval but the Mayor is simply silent. It’s because she wants to stay low key, says LNG supporter Geri Avis.

“She is not going to discuss LNG, she will avoid it, and she will focus on Nexen and other industry. And what that says about the Mayor is that she is a very politicalanimal. How sincere was her position on her LNG if she is mute after the federal decision Was it just a stepping stone to help secure the Mayoral race?,” Geri wonders.

Anti-LNG citizen Michael Kenneth Quesnel says the Mayor has made her views clear on this project and she doesn’t need to do that over and over again. He’s confident, however, that the Mayor and council will have a response to the federal approval of the project soon.    “I wouldn’t want to act hastily on it but I’d be disappointed if they remain silent. They have to get together and address this. They are our ambassadors and they should be sending out a clear message and they should be speaking loudly,” he says.

Les MacDonald says the Mayor’s silence on the federal approval is disappointing. He feels the Mayor needs to gauge the community and do a referendum on this issue, paid by the proponents. He has written a letter to the council imploring them to do a referendum on the project and offered to help anyway he can. 

“The mayor and council should push for this and I think they have a responsibility to move on this. In order to know how they can best represent us, they need to know what is going on and I don’t think there has been a more important issue than this for a referendum,” he says.  Politics aside, Craig McConnell says much of the opposition to the project was ideological and not rooted in scientific enquiry. Looking back, it’s clear that the opposition was more focussed on not having it here in Squamish, rather than having the safest most environmentally sound project, Geri Avis says.

As anti-LNG activists prepare for direction action, project supporter Evan Drygas says people who opposed the project clearly care about their community but they should take the time to re-examine the pros and cons of WLNG.

“We respect those that oppose this project as, like us, they care deeply about our community but the  minister made the right decision to approve this project with conditions because Woodfibre will truly produce some of the least carbon intensive LNG (liquefied natural gas) in the world,” he said.

He said even those opposed would benefit from the economics of such a project.

“The positive economic impact of the Woodfibre LNG project cannot be ignored. The estimated $83.7 million in tax revenue for all three levels of government during the construction phase of the project, and an estimated $86.5 million in tax revenue for all three levels of government per year of operation would greatly benefit all Canadians, even those opposed to Woodfibre LNG,” he said.

Byng Giraud, the vice president, corporate affairs, said WLNG provided $100,000 to the community and smaller amounts to province-wide charities. He failed to specify, however, on what percentage of its annual turnover the company will give to the community of Squamish.

“Once operational, Woodfibre LNG will review and change its community giving program, but it’s too early to say how that might look,” he said.