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Is B.C.’s $6 billion commitment to Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada still economically viable?

B.C. estimates it will earn $23 billion over 40 years once LNG Canada gets going, but net-zero pledges raise questions about whether global demand for gas will hold up over the project’s lifespan
In 2018, the B.C. government set out a fiscal framework that paved the way for major fossil fuel companies to invest in the LNG Canada project. Now, as construction costs continue to skyrocket and global markets fluctuate, it's uncertain whether the province will see a return on its investments.

In 2018, First Nations leaders, B.C.’s then-premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gathered in Vancouver to announce what they deemed at the time to be the single largest private sector investment in Canadian history. LNG Canada, a consortium of some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, was investing $40 billion to create a liquefied natural gas project in northern B.C.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am. I can’t stop smiling,” Horgan said at the news conference. 

B.C.’s support for LNG Canada — and the contentious Coastal GasLink pipeline project needed to get the gas across the province — is based largely on an economic argument: major projects support jobs and boost the economy. 

In 2018 and again in 2019, B.C. estimated it would receive around $23 billion in government revenues over the 40-year lifespan of LNG Canada. According to 2019 forecasts, those estimates include upstream revenues such as taxes, royalties and hydro payments. The province also predicted the projects would create 10,000 construction jobs and up to 950 permanent jobs at the liquefaction and export facility. 

Construction is well underway. The Coastal GasLink pipeline is about 75 per cent complete, with 400 kilometres of pipe in the ground on its 670-kilometre route, according to the company. TC Energy, the pipeline operator, predicts it will complete construction by the end of 2023, with the pipeline being ready for operation the following year. Meanwhile, the LNG Canada project, including its liquefaction and export facility currently under construction in Kitimat, is 70 per cent complete and aims to have the first phase of its operations up and running in 2025.

But as construction continues, costs continue to rise.

In the summer of 2022, TC Energy announced the cost of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project had ballooned from an original estimate of $6.2 billion to an updated estimate of $11.2 billion. Now, the Alberta-based company says it could cost even more.

“Current market conditions, including inflationary impacts on labour costs, could result in final project costs that are higher than this new estimate,” the company noted in its third quarter financial report, released earlier this month. 

Climate implications aside, as the project budget continues to grow and the global demand for liquefied natural gas fluctuates, is there still a financial case for the project and the province’s support of it?

Here’s what you need to know.

B.C. subsidies and investments in Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada more than $6 billion
B.C. has contributed more than $5.4 billion to the LNG Canada project. But it’s not as though B.C. wrote the corporations a cheque. That money is in the form of financial breaks and incentives — tax reprieves, tax exemptions and cheaper electricity rates. In other words, it’s money that would have otherwise ended up in public coffers. 

That $5.4 billion includes $82 million for a “load interconnection” project, according to B.C.’s recent budget and fiscal plan. That’s hydro-speak for a power line: the province is footing the bill to connect the plant to the grid.

In addition, to get Indigenous support for the pipeline, Christy Clark’s Liberal government agreed to pay more than $39 million to 16 First Nations governments, plus an additional $10 million per year once the gas starts flowing in the Coastal GasLink pipeline. In return, the agreements protect B.C. from litigation if the project infringes on any charter rights. The agreements were negotiated by former minister of Aboriginal relations John Rustad (who was recently ousted from the Liberal caucus after promoting climate change denial). 

The province also committed more than $113 million to coastal First Nations through agreements related to LNG Canada and other potential export facilities, plus $4.68 million annually. Those agreements require the nations to support the LNG industry at large, not oppose specific LNG projects “in any manner whatsoever” and work with the province to resolve a situation if one of its members does or says anything in opposition. 

When you add all of this up, the province has committed more than $6 billion to help get gas out of the ground and exported to overseas markets.

This doesn’t factor in the cost of the Site C dam, which many analysts and critics connect directly to the fossil fuel industry, noting corporate and government narratives claim B.C. is building and operating the “cleanest liquefied natural gas facilities in the world.” Those claims depend largely on extraction, transport and liquefaction being powered by electricity. The current projected price tag of the beleaguered hydro project is $16 billion.

There are also federal subsidies. Canadian taxpayers have covered $275 million for a direct investment in the liquefaction facility and are on the hook for up to $500 million in loans to the pipeline company. To date, taxpayers across the country have also footed the bill for more than $25 million in policing costs on Wet’suwet’en territory. A special unit of the RCMP maintains a constant presence in northern B.C., enforcing a court injunction against anyone acting in opposition to the pipeline. 

And more government spending may be in the works. Skye McConnell, a public affairs manager with Shell Canada, the company with the biggest stake in LNG Canada, recently lobbied the provincial government on climate issues, including the “creation of opportunities to incentivize electrification.” Shell also recently lobbied Stephen Guillbeault, the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Shell did not reply to The Narwhal’s questions prior to publication.

LNG Canada told The Narwhal it is setting the wheels in motion for its approved second phase, an expansion that would double production at the Kitimat facility.

“A final investment decision will take into account a number of factors; these include competitiveness, affordability, pace, future [greenhouse gas] emissions and stakeholder needs. Government collaboration and support will be essential for the success of LNG Canada expansion.”

The spokesperson said the LNG export project, as it is currently being built, has the lowest carbon intensity of any similar scale facility in the world.

“But if we can improve on that design, we will. That’s why we’re examining options to introduce additional electrification along the value chain in Phase 2, including at the plant site in Kitimat, which is already designed to take electricity from BC Hydro for certain power requirements.” 

The team looking into those options “will discuss with various parties, including governments and public agencies,” the spokesperson added.

When will B.C. start making money from LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink?
To date, beyond job creation, the B.C. hasn’t seen economic gains from the projects. And while northern B.C. has certainly been busier since construction started, about two-thirds of the pipeline jobs are filled by out-of-province workers, according to a project status report released in June.  

When the gas starts flowing and the liquefaction facility opens its doors, the province is set to start receiving tax revenue and BC Hydro will be paid for the electricity it sells. 

But B.C.’s estimated $23 billion in government revenue over 40 years works out to $575 million per year. That means it will take more than 10 years for the province to cover the total costs of its subsidies and agreements with First Nations.

Neither B.C.’s Ministry of Finance nor the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation responded to The Narwhal’s questions about the current financial viability of the project prior to publication.  

“In addition to other revenue streams from these projects, B.C. would start receiving revenue through royalties paid by natural gas producing companies for gas that is exported by the project,” a spokesperson for the Energy Ministry wrote in an emailed statement.

Will there still be demand 10 years after LNG Canada starts up?
High natural gas prices, in part fuelled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting European energy crisis, means there’s incentive to complete Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada as quickly as possible.

“As world events continue to demonstrate, a reliable supply of responsibly produced energy should never be taken for granted,” the LNG Canada spokesperson said. “Our project will provide security of supply for global markets that rely on Canada’s natural gas reserves to fuel their economies, reduce global [greenhouse gas] emissions as natural gas replaces the use of coal and bring significant economic growth and stability to northern British Columbia communities and all of Canada.”

But those high prices may not hold, according to the International Energy Agency. In its most recent report, the intergovernmental data-driven organization says the crisis is making countries take a hard look at whether gas is the right fit in an unstable political climate.

“The traditional arguments in favour of natural gas have focused on its role as a reliable partner for the clean energy transition and its ability to step in to fill the gap left by declining coal and oil,” the report noted. “These are currently being tested by the global repercussions of Russia’s actions in Europe. In the midst of a global energy crisis, fundamental questions are now being asked about natural gas: how can supply be assured, now and in the future, and at what price?”

“If LNG Canada were to come in service today, they’d be making money,” Clark Williams-Derry, an energy economics analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told The Narwhal in an interview. “But when it comes into service in 2025-26, will they actually be able to make money? That is an increasingly uncertain proposition.”

In modelling scenarios the International Energy Agency used to forecast demand, based on stated policies, announced pledges and net-zero commitments, demand for the fossil fuel over the next few years either rises by less than five per cent before levelling off in 2030 or plummets to 20 per cent below current demand. If countries follow through on net-zero commitments, the demand is projected to be 75 per cent lower by 2050.

What all this means for Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada is not immediately clear. If the International Energy Agency scenarios prove accurate, the twin projects might have a few good years after coming online in the mid-2020s before prices start dropping, according to Williams-Derry.

“From a long-term economics perspective, the rising cost and increasing uncertainty on supply for LNG Canada sort of casts a pall on the LNG industry for Western Canada in my mind,” he said. 

The LNG Canada consortium remains confident.

“A long-life asset with a 40-year export license, LNG Canada is advantaged by: access to abundant, low-cost natural gas from Western Canada; its location in an ice-free harbour and its shipping distance to North Asia, which is about 50 per cent shorter than from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and avoids the Panama Canal,” the spokesperson wrote.

According to Williams-Derry, the B.C.-based projects don’t make a lot of sense, financially. Getting gas from B.C.’s reserves to export facilities on the Gulf of Mexico costs less than half the cost of shipping it via Kitimat, he said. As an example, he noted a Tourmaline Oil project that would use existing TC Energy pipelines to get gas to Asian markets.

But, he added, that may not matter to the corporations invested in the projects.

As well as sunk costs in getting the pipeline and liquefaction facility this close to completion, there’s a big-picture economic argument at play for Shell, Petronas, Mitsubishi, PetroChina and Korea Gas, the companies that make up the LNG Canada consortium.

“The whole purpose of LNG Canada was to monetize the reserves that these companies had on their books but they couldn’t get to market,” Williams-Derry explained. “It was a sort of an exercise in reserves engineering, or financial engineering at their reserves.”

In essence, the companies had two options: write those reserves off the books, which means each company gets smaller and is therefore less profitable overall, or find a way to give them value.

Williams-Derry said major oil companies stay financially successful by either replacing reserves they deplete while extracting or by buying more reserves. 

“The reserves were what gave the company long-term value,” he said. “So you create the LNG Canada project to say, ‘Okay, this is how we’re going to get the stuff to market and monetize it, this is how we’re going to turn it from something that it’s in the ground to something that has extractable economic value and that we treat as a legitimate reserve.’ ”

In other words, even if the projects themselves are significantly less profitable than other pipelines, gas sources and liquefaction facilities, corporations can still make money by ensuring those reserves are counted as assets.

TC Energy seemingly distancing itself from the contentious Coastal GasLink pipeline
The company appears to be distancing itself from the Coastal GasLink pipeline. TC Energy became a minority shareholder in 2019 after selling off 65 per cent of the project to U.S.-based KKR investments and the Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo), a Crown corporation that manages $160 billion of the province’s public pension, endowment and government funds.

In March, TC Energy further reduced its future shares in the company by signing equity agreements with 16 B.C. First Nations that will provide the communities with a shared 10 per cent ownership stake in the pipeline — if the project is completed. 

“Ownership in our projects and assets means that Indigenous communities can share in Canada’s resource economy where we have the opportunity to learn, grow and change the way energy is developed in Canada,” TC Energy CEO François Poirier said in a public statement in November.

To pay for construction of Coastal GasLink, which includes navigating steep mountainous terrain and crossing more than 700 watercourses, the pipeline project is borrowing money from its operator, TC Energy. According to its latest quarterly report, TC Energy has to cough up another $1.9 billion, payable over just seven months. This doesn’t change the company’s 35 per cent ownership stake — it’s a reflection of the ballooning costs.  

It noted its commitment to the financing “has been and will continue to be stepped down over time.” 

After announcing it is facing those new costs, TC Energy also announced this quarter it will sell more than $5 billion in assets next year, to free up cash and fund new projects. The Narwhal asked the company if the sell-off was related to the increased costs of the Coastal GasLink pipeline but did not receive a response prior to publication.

Shareholders have undoubtedly had fears about the pipeline, given the project’s thorny past and tense present. Even before construction began in 2019, Coastal GasLink was a focal point for conflict and a jumping-off point for wider discussion about Indigenous Rights and reconciliation.

The project is opposed by Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and their supporters, who note the project did not receive Free, Prior and Informed Consent. The province and the pipeline company instead signed agreements with 20 elected First Nations governments, including five of six Wet’suwet’en band councils. Over three years, dozens of Indigenous land defenders have been arrested during raids by heavily armed tactical units of the RCMP. The conflict spilled across the country in early 2020, when widespread solidarity movements erupted, shutting down ports and rail lines.

The company hasn’t specifically blamed this opposition for increased costs, but alludes to it in its latest quarterly report, noting the revised estimate “reflects an increase from the original project cost estimate due to scope increases and the impacts of COVID-19, weather and other events outside of [the company’s] control.”

Though TC Energy’s actions suggest a distancing from the project, it continues to push forward with construction.

“We continue to believe the project remains economically viable and, subject to a final investment decision, we anticipate a potential second phase of Coastal GasLink could enhance TC Energy’s project returns,” TC Energy CEO Poirier said in a July statement.

TC Energy did not respond to The Narwhal’s questions about the long-term financial viability of the project.