In late July, Malaysian oil giant Petronas shelved its plans to build a large liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility at Lelu Island, south of Port Edward, British Columbia. Its Pacific NorthWest LNG proposal was one of seven LNG proposals clustered in the vicinity of Prince Rupert. The $36 billion project would have produced 18 million metric tons of LNG per year, making it three times as large as Oregon’s controversial and recently resurrected Jordan Cove LNG proposal. The Canadian federal government approved Pacific NorthWest LNG in September 2016, but the six global oil companies attached to the project could not figure out how to make it pencil out.
In a press release, the projects’ chairman said, “We are disappointed that the extremely challenging environment brought about by the prolonged depressed prices and shifts in the energy industry have led us to this decision.” He was right: the LNG industry is facing a collapse in global prices, which has stalled the nearly two-dozen projects that were once hailed by the industry-friendly BC Liberal party as a salve for financial and environmental woes. As Clark Williams-Derry noted in Sightline’s recent LNG market analysis, there’s simply no way that BC’s LNG projects could earn a profit at today’s prices. The stark market realities have not stopped the industry from attempting to blame the death of Pacific NorthWest LNG on the prerequisite that LNG projects comply with environmental safeguards, but the fact is that even the BC LNG projects with the deepest pockets and biggest hopes are uncompetitive in the current market.
The death of Pacific Northwest LNG is a big deal, but there are still no fewer than 18 LNG export projects on the drawing board in BC. If the market rebounds and these projects go forward, BC could become the world’s largest LNG exporter by far, generating over 6,500 annual LNG vessel transits on the province’s west coast. The projects would also produce substantial greenhouse gas emissions, potentially doubling the province’s carbon emissions just to convert methane gas into LNG.
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While it’s unlikely that all or even most of the projects will advance, it’s hard to determine which of the remaining contenders are best positioned. Most analysts believed the Petronas project was among the most likely to succeed because its well-capitalized backers could wait out the current slump in prices. The death of Pacific NorthWest LNG should be grim news for the remaining proposals, yet the backers of several other BC export projects have vowed to move forward, and several planned facilities are reevaluating design options to cut costs. The short list now likely includes Shell-backed LNG Canada and Chevron/Woodside’s Kitimat LNG. Both projects would be sited at Kitimat, and both would require hundreds of miles of new pipeline to deliver gas to the proposed facilities.
While the market is currently in a slump, coastal community members concerned about the proliferation of fossil fuel export proposals on the northwest coast should not get too comfortable. The market is a fickle ally, and the sheer scale of the 18 active proposals remains a large concern for the region. The veritable LNG clown car still has many more occupants – and the door hasn’t slammed shut just yet.