Christy Clark: A Foot on the Gas

Premier Christy Clark | BCBusiness

With the election race down to the wire, Premier Christy Clark paints a rosy picture of jobs and prosperity fuelled by a natural-gas boom. But if fickle commodity markets take a sudden turn, what’s her Plan B? The B.C. leader tackles this and other questions from our readers in an exclusive BCBusiness interview

You envision a prosperous future fuelled by revenue from natural gas, but energy markets are notoriously unpredictable. What if it doesn’t pan out the way you expect and the investments don’t come? What’s your Plan B for a strong B.C. economy?
Well, first, I think it will because we are doing this responsibly and we’re following all the processes, but we are doing it as quickly as we can to try and make sure it happens. We recognize that it’s cyclical, but there is so much interest from around the world in our natural gas right now because the folks that are in the business of predicting these things are predicting a strong market internationally for it in the long term. We’re moving fast because I know this window won’t be open forever. China, Russia, America are getting into the market; we’ve got to beat them.

But what’s our Plan B? Plan B is 17 new and expanded mines, it’s continuing to grow our lumber industry and our exports to China, which have grown massively. That 25 per cent growth in exports has been driven by mining products and lumber in a big way. It’s opening up trade with India. What we’re going to do in India is the same thing that we started to do 10 years ago in China: open up that market to B.C. products, diversify our customer base. That is the rest of the plan. And continue to grow tech and clean tech.

You specified a goal for new and expanded mines; do you have a similar goal for natural gas infrastructure?
Yes. Our goal is one natural gas processing facility by 2015, three by 2020. And it could be more than that; it could be five. There are more than five big companies in the hunt right now. We’re not going to second-guess which ones will be successful, but three by 2020. When we are successful at this, it will literally transform British Columbia. It will be something on the scope of what W.A.C. Bennett did in creating BC Hydro and the dams and powering up B.C., because the investment will be so massive. When you think about a trillion dollars in direct GDP growth, what’s that going to do for our provincial economy? It’s going to mean that a generation—two generations—of kids have low taxes, have great universities, have safe streets and have jobs. So it’s really a transformational change and it has been my central preoccupation since I’ve been premier, to make sure we take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Why didn’t you just say no to the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal?
First of all because we don’t have all the information about it yet. We’re still in the midst of the cross-exam that we’re doing. It hasn’t finished its review process yet. And because I understand the economic value of trying to sell Canadian resources around the world. But having said that, the five conditions that we put on are pretty tough. And three of them are environmental.

I struggle a little bit because many people say, well, Christy, it’s all about the money. Well, it isn’t. One of our conditions is about getting our fair share, but there is no amount of money that will be enough to make up for any proposed expansion of heavy oil not meeting the three environmental conditions. Those are the most important part of the formula for us.

When I talk about the five conditions, I am not just talking about Enbridge; I am talking about the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline and perhaps some other pipelines that could happen in B.C. So what I am doing is being consistent; I am setting out the rules of the game for everybody to live by. Some of the political chatter would treat one project differently from another project. We can’t have that. You can’t be inconsistent in your application of the rules and expect that you are going to be able to attract investment and create jobs for people.

The simple way to put it is that this is too important an issue to play politics on. For the folks who just said no before they even knew what the project would look like, before there had even been a day of hearings about it, that’s just politics and I think people deserve better than that.

You announced in January that a record $680 million was spent on mineral exploration in B.C. last year. How did your government make a difference in increasing mineral exploration?
First of all, just recognizing that those are very high-paying, stable, long-term jobs; we decided as a basic core value that mining matters for putting people to work and putting food on the table for families.

And then second, we set a goal with the Jobs Plan: we were projecting 17 new and expanded mines by the end of 2015, and we’re halfway there at the beginning of 2013. We said, here’s our goal and here’s how we’re going to do it: we are going to clear the backlog of notices for work for mining, we are going to go to Asia and sell the opportunity in B.C. to investors around the world, and we are going to make huge investments in our road and port infrastructure so that we can get those goods to market.

The other side of it is getting out of the way of industry. Governments say they want mining and they’re going to do it in an environmentally sustainable way; that’s what we’re doing, too, but the difference between us and a lot of other jurisdictions is the process that we’re putting in place. Our commitment is that if we say it’s going to take 60 days to get your permit or… to get an answer, it’s going to take 60 days. It’s not going to take six months or six years. If you want to attract an investment as large as you’ll often get in the mining sector, time matters.

We are a government that doesn’t say maybe. We’re a government that says yes or no. We’ll do it in a timely manner, and we think that’s going to attract investment and it’s working.

You’ve said that competing with other jurisdictions over tax subsidies to the film sector is a race to the bottom. How can we ensure the film jobs stay here when other jurisdictions are undercutting us?
I understand that they’re feeling a lot of pressure from the folks who make decisions in Los Angeles and New York, but we need to find other ways to try and support the film industry. For example, we announced [on January 31] that Bill Bennett is bringing all the film functions in government under one roof, and that’s another thing that [the film industry] asked us to do.

In bringing Bollywood to Vancouver [with the Times of India Film Awards], we are going to introduce a whole new market of moviemakers. So it won’t just be decision makers in L.A. that our industry is thinking about; they’re also going to be thinking about decision makers in Mumbai. I really believe we have to diversify our markets if we want to strengthen our economy—and that’s no different for film.

Where things get shot is cyclical and lots of them are going to Louisiana and places like that that have gone a long way on the competition around tax breaks. I don’t believe those jurisdictions will be able to sustain this for very long because at some point we all have to decide we’re going to balance our budget or make our kids pay the bill.

And more than that, though, we are building a huge post-production industry here that is going to stay here, and we’re feeding that with graduates from Emily Carr [University] and the Centre for Digital Media. So they might be shooting a film in Toronto today, but they’re still going to do the post-production work in Vancouver. And I bet next year they’re not going to be shooting it in Toronto either, because I don’t believe that Ontario is going to be able to keep these incredibly generous tax breaks available.