LNG is a world energy solution, but does Ottawa get it?

LNG is an economic and climate win-win for Canada and the world, writes Stewart Muir. Our allies are asking why it’s taking so long.

Stewart Muir, CEO of Resource Works at LNG2023.

For a while this summer, Vancouver was the world epicentre of the future of liquefied natural gas (LNG). A large number of global experts showed up for the World LNG2023 conference, and there were some 85 nations represented.

There was a diplomatic forum on the first day that I attended. In a candid closed-door session, we heard from industry and governments that there is a global energy problem ­— and that LNG is one of the solutions.

It was very clear that these people, who deal every day with the realities of politics, policy, trade, economics and energy (the underpinning of civilization), recognize the value of LNG.

We heard a lot about the “energy trilemma” — we want energy that's available, not just hypothetical; that's affordable, because people have to be able to fit it into their economic plans; and that’s secure, because the world shouldn’t be dependant on aggressors like Russia.

If you have all those things together, which you do in LNG, then you have something that you could build an economy on.

For those of us in the Western world, especially G7 countries like Canada, we have things pretty good. The relatively small populations of these countries live better than any humans have ever lived. But that cannot be said of the greatest numbers of people living in the growing economies of Asia and Africa, desperate for the energy to lift their people into prosperity.

The Global South need energy that passes the energy trilemma test. By hook or by crook, those countries will get what they need to develop their economy.

Take China as an example. Right now, it’s building a record amount of coal-powered generating stations, one of the world’s greatest sources of industrial emissions.

True, China is also building a record amount of renewables, such as solar and wind (good news in and of itself). But the “peoples’ republic” is also building more coal plants; they're doing both things.

One of the reasons China is building on coal is it doesn’t have a low-carbon solution for the energy trilemma. It doesn’t have an alternative source of affordable, available, secure energy supply, despite investing in solar and wind. So back to coal it goes, which, despite having the attributes outlined in the energy trilemma, is too high in emissions to be acceptable for our planet.

How can Canada be part of solving the need for accessible, affordable, secure and cleaner energy in Asia? It’s easy: BC LNG.

Japan, for example, which needs LNG to maintain where they are, sees Canada as a reliable supplier. It doesn’t want to buy all its gas (or in some cases, any) from certain Middle Eastern countries or from Russia. They’d like to have Canada in the mix.

At the LNG2023 conference, one presenter noted that between 2020 and 2022, if Canada had then had LNG on the water, in ships going to market, it would have been able to prevent a whole Canada's worth of emissions in those destination countries.

This is why LNG exports need to be part of a realistic Canadian climate strategy. By getting our natural gas to overseas markets, we can even the books on our climate contributions of greenhouse gases.

This is a simple but profound truth, because right now the political imperative in Canada is simply about reducing emissions in Canada without any thought to what's going on in the rest of the world. Applying the logic of trade, that’s something we call “climate protectionism.”

According to the Canadian ambassador to Japan, Canada’s relations with that country have never been better in trade terms, and there's a huge amount of interest in Canadian gas from the West Coast. In 2023, Japanese leadership travelled to Ottawa for meetings on LNG and other trade issues. And it seemed as if, at least privately, there was openness to it on the part of our federal government.

The German chancellor's visit last year, which was more about East Coast and LNG, unleashed a politically challenging issue for the Trudeau government, because of Quebec politics, and Quebec’s opposition to pipelines and LNG development.

Readers may remember that in response to the German interest in LNG from the East Coast, the prime minister said there has “never been a strong business case” for LNG exports from the East Coast to Europe. He suggested, instead, that we export our natural gas to the US and let them process it into LNG and ship that to Europe — at a profit that could have stayed here in Canada if only our leaders had more forethought.

Those with ears to the ground in other parts of the world may have heard that there is a sense that Canada has all this natural gas, which they desperately need, but is hoarding it, for unknown selfish reasons. Without commenting on the validity of the perception, the fact is that when decision makers know how LNG can reduce emissions around the world but refuse be a team player, they don't look nearly as heroic to their peers elsewhere as some politicians in Canada seem to think.

An obsession with domestic emissions at the expense of our shared global climate reveals a short sighted and curiously unscientific approach to climate change. For better or worse, it’s raising eyebrows.

The LNG delegates meeting in Vancouver, including officials from all over the world, certainly noted that Canada’s natural Resources Minister and the Finance Minister – people they should have been hearing from – “weren't available.”

Prime Minister Trudeau had an excuse: he was travelling to Latvia and Lithuania and a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders’ summit.

But what about Jonathan Wilkinson, the Natural Resources Minister (and now also the energy minister)? Alberta Premier Danielle Smith made time to speak to LNG2023, while Wilkinson decided to stay away from the most important energy discussion happening in the world, a matter of minutes from his North Vancouver riding.

Ottawa did send its then Tourism and Associate Finance Minister to Vancouver, and his statement was a positive recognition that LNG is a big opportunity and that his government is doing everything it can to make it possible.

The Minister, Randy Boissonnault (an Edmonton MP, now Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Official Languages) told the conference that the development of an at-scale LNG economy is a climate asset for Canada.

“The world’s major economies are moving at an unprecedented rate and pace to fight climate change, retool their economies and build the net-zero industries of tomorrow,” he told delegates. “Canada must keep pace because we cannot afford to fall behind – that is why the development of an at-scale LNG economy is a strategic priority for Canada.”

Canadian producers, said the Minister, “have the ability to produce LNG with the world’s highest environmental standards and lowest emissions.”

Though it would appear that the federal government doesn't want to draw public attention to it, Minister Boissonnault’s message was well received by those in the room. Given the broad support for LNG of not only the international community but also Canadian voters, I’m nonetheless puzzled why the then tourism minister had to shoulder our new Energy Minister’s file during the most important energy event of the year.

Perhaps well meaning yet nonetheless erroneous assumptions about natural gas and the energy transformation factored into their decision. Yet LNG and natural gas are not transition fuels, as some perhaps wish, but destination fuels for the vast majority of the world.

In other words, we're going towards a world in which gas will be a part of how we provide energy for a long time to come.

There’s this idea that LNG is a “bridge fuel” until wind farms inevitably – sometime in the next few years – crowd the horizons, and solar farms fill the earth, and Energizer comes out with a double-A big enough to power the world. Then, it is thought, we can relinquish natural gas.

Energy experts aren't seeing that.

As Greg Ebel, the CEO of Enbridge, told LNG2023 delegates, natural gas is the great equalizer to a less turbulent, more equitable and sustainable energy evolution on the path to net-zero. Canada (and BC) happen to have plenty of it.

“Our friends from places like Germany and Japan have been knocking on our door in recent months and asking Canada for natural gas (the great equalizer),” said Ebel. “To which we’ve said . . . no. So why are we shirking something that’s equal parts opportunity and obligation?”

It’s a good question to ask.

“The Germans, Japanese and South Koreans came to Canada looking for more energy and we’ve turned them away. What message does that send to our allies, trading partners and the developing world?”

If the federal government truly believes what Minister Boissonnault said so well, that Canadian LNG is a vital economic and climate asset, then my advice is to shout it from the roof-tops and set about permit reform to expedite these much-needed projects. After being ostensibly absent for some time, they may finally find our allies thanking us that “Canada is back.”

Stewart Muir is the founder and CEO of Resource Works.

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