LNG projects stalled in ‘political purgatory’

Written By Rob Shaw

“The premier is afraid to even talk about it.”

Ellis Ross

B.C.’s New Democrat government is facing a series of tough decisions around whether to approve First Nations-led liquified natural gas projects, which may imperil its climate targets but are also viewed by Indigenous leaders as reconciliation efforts needed to lift their communities out of poverty.

At least three Indigenous-led LNG projects are being actively planned in the province, though none have obtained approvals or support from the David Eby government.

Cedar LNG (a cooperative deal between the Haisla Nation and Pembina Pipeline) is the closest. It submitted its application to the joint federal-provincial environmental assessment review on Nov. 16, 2022. That was supposed to be a 45-day process. But the Kitimat-based company still hasn’t heard back.

“Under this premier, the project has been trapped in political purgatory since last November,” said Skeena MLA Ellis Ross, the local MLA and a former Haisla Nation chief counsellor.

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross near his home village of Kitimaat last spring. [Photo Fran Yanor]

“The premier is afraid to even talk about it. He’s ashamed of our natural resources and LNG. He has no clear explanation or timeline for a decision on the Haisla-Cedar project.”

‘Challenging questions’

Technically, the decision rests with Environment Minister George Heyman and Energy Minister Josie Osborne. But nobody — perhaps including them — truly knows where Eby stands on LNG. New and expanded LNG facilities could easily cause the NDP to miss the pollution reduction targets in its climate change plan. But Eby has also placed major emphasis on Indigenous participation in local natural resource projects — of which Cedar LNG is a prime example.

“These are important projects that have been brought forward by First Nations partners,” Eby told the legislature this week, when the issue came up.

“LNG is — let’s be frank — a fossil fuel that contributes in part to global climate change.”

David Eby

“They’re challenging questions for British Columbians, even if the opposition pretends that they’re not,” Eby said.

Premier David Eby has been cagey about whether upcoming LNG projects – even Indigenous-led – will be approved. [Photo BC Government]

“British Columbians are seized with the issue of climate change. They see the smoky summers, the wildfire seasons that have destroyed a huge portion of our forest base, the floods that we’ve seen through atmospheric rivers and the heat dome. LNG is — let’s be frank — a fossil fuel that contributes in part to global climate change.”

But, Cedar LNG touts itself as a much cleaner project than others, such as LNG Canada, because it is planning to use hydroelectricity to power its turbines instead of natural gas.

“We remain confident that the Government of British Columbia will issue a positive decision.”

Cedar LNG

“We remain confident that the Government of British Columbia will issue a positive decision on this important project that will support economic reconciliation with First Nations and contribute to a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions,” the company said in a statement.

Still, there’s no indication that this has swayed Eby.

“We’re going to be recognizing that there is, ultimately, for fossil fuels, a movement internationally away from them to respond to carbon pollution and towards innovative technologies like hydrogen and better use of firm electricity, hydro resources,” said the premier, when asked by reporters about the issue this week.

Wellbeing threatened if LNG support withdrawn

The indecision has angered the BC First Nations LNG Alliance, which includes the Haisla, Nisga’a, Gitxaala, Huu-ay-ahlt, Wet’suwet’en, Ts’il Kaz Koh, and other nations in support of locally-led, job-generating LNG facilities in their communities.

“Your government’s withdrawal from [LNG] … would be an environmental and economic policy failure that threatens the wellbeing of our members.”

BC First Nations LNG Alliance

“Your government’s apparent withdrawal from this most important pillar of economic reconciliation and responsible energy transition would be an environmental and economic policy failure that threatens the wellbeing of our members and the province as a whole,” the alliance wrote in an open letter to Eby this week.

‘Glaring lack of express commitment’

It criticized Eby for a “glaring lack of express commitment to LNG development” in his first throne speech in February.

“We are also fully aware that your office is under extreme pressure from certain members of caucus and various ill-informed NGOs who believe that the province should immediately cease all traditional energy development, regardless of the economic and human consequences.

“We are also fully aware [of] … extreme pressure from certain members of caucus and various ill-informed NGOs.”

BC First Nations LNG Alliance

“We do not hold these irresponsible and unrealistic views. Rather, for the first time in many generations, LNG development has provided immediate and medium-term opportunities to lift thousands of Indigenous people and our communities out of intergenerational poverty.”

Eby himself may have little positive to say about LNG, but his energy minister, Osborne, took a better stab at a rounded perspective when I asked her about it in the hallway this week.

“I appreciate the perspective of just how important these projects are,” she said.

“We have tough decisions ahead of us.”

Josie Osborne

“It’s a challenging situation. It’s balancing the needs for First Nations self determination and economic reconciliation. British Columbians care deeply about the environment and about climate change and about meeting or Clean BC targets. And we have tough decisions ahead of us.”

Internal NDP factions oppose LNG

The decisions are made tougher by the element within the NDP caucus (and cabinet) that opposes LNG. One of the newer names to add to that list is Attorney General Niki Sharma, from Vancouver, who is a former climate campaigner with Stand.earth.

Sharma, though, is a lawyer who specialized in First Nations issues. She, more than most, knows how complex reconciliation can be. 

Last month, Haisla chief councillor Crystal Smith added her influential voice to the mix.

“Focused only on a fractional reduction in Canada’s overall emissions, the stark demand of the climate activists remains oblivious to other basic considerations,” Smith wrote in an OpEd. “Being pushed to the economic margins by climate activism would be as tragic as the original colonial dispossession.”

Former premier John Horgan visits the Kitimat LNG facility with Haisla chief councillor Crystal Smith in 2020. [Photo BC Government]

“Reconciliation is impossible without the hope and dignity supported by participation in a viable, modern economy,” read the open letter to Eby from the First Nations LNG Alliance.

‘A clear path forward’ to approve LNG projects

“Your government’s throne speech recognition that ‘First Nations working to pursue sustainable economic development and long-term partnerships with industry, benefit not just First Nations – but everyone around them, now and into the future’ provides a clear path forward to support and approve liquefied natural gas projects now that groundbreaking Indigenous resource reconciliation decisions have been made.

“To do otherwise for no other reason than to appease climate alarmists is impossible to reconcile with these values or your government’s commitment under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the provincial Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, and the judicially recognized economic component of treaty and Aboriginal rights protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.”

For that, the Eby government appears to have no counterpoint. 

While it stalls for time, using climate concerns as justification, it also further damages reconciliation efforts with some nations.

The First Nations LNG Alliance ended its open letter this week with a warning about what could be legal action ahead: “We will not hesitate to advance and enforce our interests should British Columbia default on any of these obligations.”

Eby is right, there are tough decisions coming soon for his government. Perhaps, sooner than he hoped. And also, tougher than he’s expecting.