Is the B.C. NDP really calling for a moratorium on natural gas production?

An environmental project is providing some of the first specific numbers about people who may have been affected by the boom in natural gas drilling.
An environmental project is providing some of the first specific numbers about people who may have been affected by the boom in natural gas drilling. Brennan Linsley/The Canadian Press/AP

VANCOUVER – Premier Christy Clark has bet British Columbia’s economic fortunes — and her own career — on the promise of a windfall from the liquefied natural gas industry, which she insists will be enough to pay off the province’s debt, fund social programs and potentially eliminate the need for a provincial sales tax.

As the Liberal leader tells it, the only thing standing in the way of that bright future is the Opposition New Democrats, led by Adrian Dix, who she criticizes for failing to take a position on the LNG industry while simultaneously accusing him of plotting to place a moratorium on some natural gas production.

Clark has made those claims repeatedly in the opening days of the campaign for the May 14 election, pointing to a collection of quotes from two New Democrat politicians and one new candidate. But a closer examination of the New Democrats’ publicly stated positions doesn’t live up to the premier’s dire warnings.

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On the other hand, the NDP’s promise to launch a scientific review of natural gas development has made it difficult for the party to articulate precisely what it thinks LNG will mean for the future of B.C., while a high-profile candidate’s past comments about the industry have forced the New Democrats to explain how that candidate, George Heyman, fits into their plans.

“We have a party (the NDP) that doesn’t believe in natural gas,” Clark told a campaign rally Thursday in Fort St. John.

“They want to put a moratorium on even getting it out of the ground.”

Clark was referring to the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” which injects water, sand, and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to break up the underlying rock and release gas. Fracking will be essential for the expansion of B.C.’s LNG industry.

The Liberals base their claim of an NDP fracking moratorium on a single quote from John Horgan — the NDP’s energy critic — lifted from a newspaper article from last fall.

Horgan was asked by The Province whether the party would consider following Quebec’s lead and imposing a moratorium on fracking.

For the Liberals, his response was the money quote: “I wouldn’t rule it out if the evidence is we need to do that (a moratorium).”

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The Liberal campaign ends the quote there, but Horgan continued in the article: “But I haven’t seen that evidence yet, and that’s why we need to have a scientific assessment.”

The NDP released a plan for LNG development in November 2011, which, among other things, called for the appointment of an expert panel to review the environmental and social effects of fracking and how best to develop the industry.

On Thursday, Horgan said neither he nor his party have ever called for a moratorium on fracking. Still, he acknowledged his party isn’t prepared to rule out any policy if it wins the election and has a chance to appoint its expert panel.

A moratorium is “not the objective, but you don’t put in place a review if you’ve predetermined the outcome,” Horgan said in an interview.

“But in my experience, I’ve not seen any evidence (to support a moratorium). Our objective is not to constrain, it’s to confirm the viability of the activity.”

The Liberals also point to George Heyman, an NDP candidate in Vancouver-Fairview, who was once executive director of Sierra Club B.C. and a vocal critic of fracking.

When he was seeking the NDP nomination last fall, Heyman said the province should “hold the level” on fracking development until scientific studies demonstrate whether it’s safe.

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Horgan notes those comments were made before Heyman was officially a candidate and he said Heyman has since fallen into line.

In an interview, Heyman indeed preferred the party’s position on LNG to what he may have said in the past.

“I certainly made a number of statements on my concerns about fracking and my concerns about the scope of liquefied natural gas,” Heyman said Thursday.

“I also made it clear that policy decisions in caucuses and in government are positions that are taken by a group of people.”

Lastly, the Liberals have claimed Rob Fleming, while NDP environment critic, described the idea of ethical natural gas production as “insanity.”

That, too, is based on a partial quote, lifted from a reporter’s Twitter account rather than Fleming himself.

Fleming was addressing an event staged by Gen Why Media, which gathered political candidates at a Vancouver movie theatre in April to debate climate change.

Gen Why Media has helpfully posted the entire event on YouTube, where Fleming can be heard telling the audience: “We cannot treat LNG as I think Premier Christy Clark and other boosters of the industry do and say this is a great bonanza, we’re going to realize hundreds of billions of dollars of money, and put all of our economic eggs in one basket. That would be insanity.”

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The NDP, in turn, have launched their own attacks on Clark’s LNG plans, suggesting her government’s predictions of the industry’s value are inflated.

Clark has predicted the industry will be worth $1 trillion over the next 30 years, generating as much as $100 billion in revenues for the provincial government and creating more than 100,000 jobs.

Those estimates are based on at least five LNG plants opening within the next decade, but the New Democrats accuse the Liberals of overestimating how much money the industry can generate and being overly optimistic about the future demand and potential prices for B.C. gas.

The NDP have resisted creating their own figures, suggesting such an exercise would be “premature” before their planned review.

Zoher Meratla, an LNG expert based in Whistler, B.C., said the premier’s lofty predictions are unlikely to materialize.

“In the short term, definitely not realistic at all,” said Meratla. “In the medium term, in 10 years or so, you might see three plants.”

Meratla said it’s possible — though far from certain — that B.C. could support five LNG plants in the next two decades, but he said even then, the province’s revenue estimates appear high.

“I honestly think it’s grossly inflated,” he said.

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“We know what the royalties are for governments in other countries, and it simply cannot support those kinds of numbers.”

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