Monday, 24 March 2014

LNG and the Dreams of Wenner-Gren

B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett in 1955.

This blog so far has focused on outer space and space exploration, but my interests in technology go beyond that realm. Today politicians and voters are making choices that involve various types of technology. As someone who has worked alongside politicians, I am also interested in the interface between politics and technology.

Much of our politics today is bound up in the social and political choices we have made over the past century to base our economy on the use of internal combustion engines for our transportation needs. As a result, our economy is based on oil and other petroleum products, and to a lesser extent on other energy sources such as hydro-electric power.

Local and provincial politics in Canada are bound up with decisions over transportation systems, and today all levels of government are making decisions related to Canada's oil resources and the desire to move those resources to market by pipeline and rail.

These issues played a role in last year's provincial election in British Columbia, an election where I actively supported the BC New Democratic Party, which suffered an unexpected loss to Premier Christy Clark's BC Liberals. The reasons behind that surprising result are many, and a number of those reasons involve mistakes and miscalculations on the part of the NDP.

Here I want to talk about one aspect of that election campaign - Clark's decision to base her campaign on a promise to deliver 100,000 jobs and wipe out the province's debt with the proceeds from development of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) exports.

That promise and the electoral success Clark enjoyed in part as a result of it give her a claim to a prize for the best new variation on an old play in BC politics - using promises of new technologies to conjure up visions of plenty in the minds of voters.

Clark's LNG promise reminds me of the great megaproject play made in the late 1950s by the Social Credit government of W.A.C. Bennett, who is widely regarded as BC's greatest premier. Bennett ruled for 20 years, and even the successors of his NDP opponents today salute his memory, in part because he was never afraid to steal ideas from the NDP playbook.

In 1957, Bennett announced that his government had signed an agreement with the Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren involving the construction of a gigantic resources project that would include construction of a $1-billion, 160-mile-per-hour monorail running along the Rocky Mountain Trench up through the Peace River to the Yukon Border, development of a land area the size of Nova Scotia, and creation of a pulp mill and hydro-electric developments.

While many of these ideas, notably the monorail, quickly fell by the wayside, the idea of developing the Peace for hydro-electric power eventually took centre stage. Together with other schemes to dam the Columbia river, this developed into the Two River Policy that Bennett is remembered for today.

Bennett won the 1960 election after a difficult and hard-fought campaign, and the Wenner-Gren scheme, having served Bennett's political purposes, died within weeks of the votes being counted. Bennett's biographer David Mitchell wrote: "In the end, the Wenner-Gren scheme was nothing more than a fantasy - the Wizard of Oz approach to economic development." But the Peace River power idea gave Bennett leverage in the difficult Columbia River negotiations with the federal government and the U.S. government.

The 1960s would be the decade where Bennett developed his power plans, starting with the Columbia River and the government takeover of BC Electric. And Bennett's efforts eventually led to hydro-electric projects in the Peace River. Today Clark's government is considering a long-proposed scheme to build a new dam on the Peace.

The dreams of Wenner-Gren were used to help bring BC voters to Bennett's side in 1960. Although those dreams were largely empty, Bennett was able to extract one idea that he put to use in building the province, and incidentally to help him win three more elections.

Bennett's son later used his own megaproject for coal near Tumbler Ridge to help win an election in 1979, and even the NDP's Glen Clark worked hard on his 1990s hope to exploit B.C.'s hydro-electric resources to create aluminum smelters around the province.

Now Christy Clark has done the same with LNG. Many critics have scoffed at her LNG promises, noting the heavy competition in this field and the volatile nature of energy markets. The premier responded in her throne speech this year with a defiant comparison of her hopes for LNG with President John F. Kennedy's challenge to America to put astronauts on the Moon in the 1960s.

Among the many differences between Clark's LNG promise and Kennedy's Moon challenge is the fact that Kennedy's criteria for success were much clearer and far easier to judge than Clark's LNG promises. It is likely that Clark will claim victory as soon as any jobs and and any revenue are created from LNG, regardless of whether or not they come close to the numbers she used in the 2013 election campaign. And her critics - including this writer - will hold her to a higher standard.

For today, it remains to be seen whether Christy Clark can deliver on her LNG promise. But it is a sure bet that future BC political leaders will use the lure of fantastical riches from high-tech resource megaprojects to win votes on the campaign trail.

1 comment:

  1. Well, CC is closer to the truth than most. She won the election on hot air...