BC residents took to the polls Tuesday to elect a new Parliament—and for fossil fuel exports a lot rode on the electoral outcome.
A win by the right-of-center BC Liberal Party could have spelled doom for BC coal exports, particularly from US companies shipping their wares through southern BC. Liberal leader Christy Clark had taken an unexpectedly strong stand against coal shipments to overseas power plants: she first sent a letter to federal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for a complete ban on such exports, and later vowed to levy a prohibitively stiff fee on coal exports if the federal government didn’t act. The move was initially portrayed as little more than a bargaining chip in a trade dispute over softwood lumber import duties imposed by the Trump administration. But Premier Clark doubled down, claiming that she’d take action on coal exports even if the lumber duties were lifted. In short, a Liberal win would have been abysmal news for US coal companies hoping to ship coal to Asia.
On the other hand, a win by the New Democratic Party (NDP) would have created huge obstacles for oil and natural gas exports. Christy Clark’s put liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports at the center of the Liberals’ economic platform, despite the fact that collapsing LNG prices had rendered most of those projects uneconomic without significant government subsidies. Just so, Clark’s party had been supportive of Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which could allow a massive increase in oil exports from Alberta’s tar sands. But the New Democrats actively opposed the Trans Mountain expansion, and could have derailed provincial LNG export projects as well. (Curiously, the NDP remained largely on the sidelines during the debate over US coal exports, going so far as to call Clark’s proposed export ban “reckless.”)
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But as it turns out, neither of those two parties won a clear-cut victory: with 44 seats needed for a Parliamentary majority, the Liberals have won 43 seats, the New Dems 41 seats, and the Green Party holds 3 seats. And contrary to many media reports, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Liberals have “won” a minority government. Instead, as this useful primer points out, there are at least 4 possible outcomes for this election. In at least two scenarios, the Greens—who oppose all fossil fuel exports—would in the position of being kingmakers in the new government, extracting significant major concessions from whichever party they partner with to form a majority government. So far, it appears that the Greens’ top priority is to get big money out of BC politics, but it’s at least conceivable that they could negotiate significant environmental concessions as well—perhaps winning blanket opposition to fossil fuel exports of all stripes. After all, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has said that the Trans Mountain pipeline has “no place on our coast,” while dismissing the Liberals’ LNG-obsession as “nonsense.”
To throw more confusion into the mix, the vote count is incredibly close in some ridings (districts). In one riding, the NDP candidate is winning by just 9 votes, a margin that will trigger an automatic recount. If the New Dems lose that seat in the recount, it will be a 44-40-3 split and the Liberals will have a narrow majority. That would still be bad news for US coal exporters, but could mean a modest boost for the prospects of LNG projects and the Trans Mountain Pipeline.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for a few weeks to know who will actually form the government. I’m afraid I’ll be on pins and needles for a while longer. But regardless of the precise outcome, I imagine that some would-be fossil fuel exporters will be mightily disappointed once the dust settles.