A project known as Pacific Northwest LNG seems about to be confirmed by its partners. Barring negative decisions by either the BC Legislature – which was having a boisterous debate on the topic as this publication went to press – or by environmental officials in Ottawa, the project is in the bag.It could make its first deliveries late in 2018.
The business of turning gas into a cold, high-pressure liquid and shipping it abroad by tanker, LNG is already a huge player in global energy markets. The world’s LNG infrastructure has been decades in the building, and it has enabled large gas producers with tidewater access to ship this clean hydrocarbon to the world’s industrial markets.
The background: Since the 1970s, Canada’s petroleum industry has periodically proposed developing facilities so the industry could ship LNG to North American and European markets. Such a proposal – it would have delivered gas from British Columbia to Japan – received conditional approval from the National Energy Board in 1982. Within four years, the growth of sea-borne gas trade killed the idea.
One reason was that Qatar, with its unimaginably large North gas field, developed plans to ship its own gas around the world. That small state began doing so in 1991, and continues to increase export volumes. Since then, the global market has grown rapidly. For example, a liquefaction plant will shortly open in Texas, bringing to five the number of LNG export facilities operational or under construction in the United States – an energy giant in which regulators have received applications for 15 more. This explosion of activity relates partly to rapidly growing world demand and partly to the U.S. shale gas revolution, which has boosted that country’s natural gas production more than eightfold in five years.
Construction of LNG facilities is also underway in Australia, which by some accounts will be the world’s largest exporter by 2018.
In that context, being on the cusp of approval is a notable victory for PacificNorthwest. After all, barely three years ago the community councils of Prince Rupert, Terrace and Skeena vehemently opposed associated tanker traffic on the west coast during animated disputes over construction of the Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline to nearby Kitimat. The “approval” of Gateway was a cross between being damned with faint praise and receiving a consolation prize.
For the project to proceed, its proponents would have had to meet 209 conditions recommended by the National Energy Board, and begin further talks with aboriginal communities. Officialdom having effectively stopped the crude oil project in its tracks, railways and the pipeline sector quickly added about half a million barrels of transportation capacity from Canada to American markets. For practical purposes, this means that all the oil Canada produces has access to American markets. In addition, the Line 9 reversal will soon take oil from Western Canada to refiners in Québec and points east. These transportation systems were not cheap; the industry has paid for this greater market access through lower prices.
Sobered by the lost opportunity associated with Northern Gateway, the Pacific Northwest project is a different kind of cat. The project will be widely owned by four state-owned enterprises in addition to PETRONAS, all Asian. The company’s partners will all import gas from the project.
In selling the project, jobs are one focus of the proponent’s sales pitch. It will provide long-term employment for 330, perhaps 300 spinoff jobs in the Prince Rupert area and 4,500 temporary jobs during construction. Also, of course, natural gas doesn’t rile environmentalists the way oil sometimes does.
When it receives final approval, the facility will liquefy and export natural gas produced in northeast BC by PETRONAS subsidiary Progress Energy Canada Ltd. The liquefaction and export facility, which could ship as much as 22.2 million tonnes per year, will be located on land administered by the Prince Rupert B.C. Port Authority.
Progress Energy and partners have more than tripled their natural gas reserves to support LNG exports from northeast British Columbia. For example, according to its most recent year-end evaluation put its proved and probable reserve additions of 5.76 trillion cubic feet of gas equivalent at the end of 2013 – three times the results of the previous year.
In many ways the PETRONAS project parallels LNG Canada, a project led by Shell Canada likely to start operations at the end of this decade. Like Pacific NorthWest LNG, LNG Canada includes participation by Asian LNG importers. The project would be slightly larger than the PETRONAS project, with annual capacity of 24 million tonnes. One partner, Korean Gas, is already the largest LNG importer on Earth.
A third project, which Calgary-based AltaGas recently acquired, could also begin operating in 2018. It would initially deliver only 550,000 tonnes of LNG per year, however – one fifth the size of the PETRONAS project.
Transformation: Canada is witnessing the birth of a new and lucrative industry – the liquefaction of natural gas for delivery to overseas markets. That is what this project is all about.
The LNG facility reflects a shift of investment capital from a north-south flow over the 49th parallel to an east-west current across the Pacific, with much of the money coming from state-owned oil companies. Natural gas is already a major export commodity for Canada, which sells about 75 billion cubic metres to the US annually, using infrastructure worth some $100 billion.
In that context, the $11 billion liquefaction facility will not be a huge investment. However, such a large LNG facility would represent the largest single capital project in British Columbia’s history.
Few companies are better able to pull off that trick than PETRONAS. The company’s sole owner is the Government of Malaysia, which has assigned to it all of the country’s vast petroleum resources, and given it a mandate to develop those resources and otherwise to grow, worldwide. According to the most recent numbers from Fortune magazine, the company is the 69th largest global company, with more than $160 billion in assets, and the 16th largest oil company.
For BC and Canada, its LNG activity in BC would be an arbitrage for natural gas, since Asian prices are far higher than those available in North America. Higher prices would contribute to the industry’s cash flow and to provincial royalties. Greater industrial activity would stimulate the national economy.
As LNG projects become reality, they will reduce the market barrier to shale gas fracturing technologies. While the Pacific NorthWest project will focus on exports from British Columbia’s segment of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, in terms of unconventional resource development, it will improve the economics of the shale gas plays at Horn River (BC) and Montney (Alberta). Both structures are now produced mainly for their liquids, with natural gas almost an afterthought.