November 24, 2023

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE that liquefied natural gas (LNG) was once nothing more than a pipe dream in B.C. Back in the early 2000s, LNG development was limited to exploration, with questions surrounding its viability.

Now, more than 10 years since BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark staked her election destiny to LNG, the business is booming.

A $40-billion LNG export facility being built in Kitimat, B.C., is the largest private sector investment project in Canadian history, according to the federal government. Construction on the LNG Canada site is now 85 per cent complete and it employs thousands of local skilled tradespeople and BC Building Trades (BCBT) members.

The maintenance of the facility will continue to employ BCBT members for years to come thanks to an historic agreement between LNG Canada and the Pacific Regional Maintenance Council (PRMC). LNG Canada awarded the main industrial site services contract to Gitga’at Waiward Industrial. The contract is estimated to be worth more than $100 million with a million-plus work hours across the lifespan of the six-year contract.

“The owner has seen the quality and value we deliver, and we are now going to be maintaining that infrastructure into the future,” said Al Phillips, president of the BC Building Trades, secretary treasurer of the PRMC, and business manager and financial secretary of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Local 170.

Two more proposed LNG facilities — Woodfibre LNG in Squamish and the Haisla Nation owned Cedar LNG in Kitimat — have received government environmental approvals and are also moving forward.

Today’s reality is a far cry from 2013, when then Liberal leader Clark ran her election campaign with a promise to make B.C. a major producer of LNG. Bus ads famously displayed the slogan “debt-free B.C.”. Clark won the election and soon after led a trade mission to Asia, the primary market for the natural resource. She invited representatives from government, industry, First Nations and labour, including the BCBT executive director of the day, Tom Sigurdson.

Sigurdson insisted on bringing more Building Trades members including former president Lee Loftus, and business managers Brian Cochrane and Glen Hilton. The delegation travelled to China, South Korea and Japan to promote development in B.C. and raise investor awareness about the value and skills of unionized building trades workers.

Sigurdson made a presentation at a Canada-Korea natural gas forum in Seoul.

“We went over to assure the investors we could do the labour supply and it played a significant component in getting the investments,” said Sigurdson. “It was a wonderful time for the Building Trades to talk freely with the chief officers of the proponents.”

Around the same time, the BC Liberal government formed an LNG working group that included Sigurdson. The working group made a series of recommendations including apprenticeship trades and mentoring to address the skills gap left behind by former premier Gordon Campbell who cut trades training so drastically in the first decade of the 2000s that apprenticeship completions dropped by more than 30 per cent.

“This was a watershed moment,” said Brynn Bourke who was the apprenticeship specialist at the Building Trades at the time and is now executive director. “The Liberal government needed us to show [LNG investors] that we had the workforce to do the job. We finally had a government that saw the value of apprenticeship and wanted to build it back. So, we saw public policy changes such as those attracting women into the trades.”

B.C. has the second largest natural gas fields in Canada and the potential to provide centuries of LNG supply to an energy-starved world, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The magnitude of the proposed LNG facilities required a close examination of how many skilled tradespeople were available in B.C. and forced the construction industry to recognize the value of apprenticeships in the skilled trades and broaden their scope to untapped labour sources — women and Indigenous peoples.

Building relationships with First Nations was especially significant because LNG Canada’s facilities are being built on unceded Haisla Nation territory.

“We wanted to get more First Nations into our training programs because they have a demographic of the youngest, fastest growing population. The outreach was very effective, and we started to bring in Indigenous apprentices,” said Sigurdson, who went to Kitimat to speak with Haisla Nation representatives and also worked with the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.

“They had women-only and Indigenous-only pipe training classes and hundreds of people took these classes. The impact on people was huge. They’ll be able to pay off their mortgages,” said Bourke. “Because at the end of the day, who’s going to build LNG? Nothing gets built in this province without workers. You can win an election talking a big talk, but when the rubber hits the road it’s human beings who are going to build. Workers have power.”

By Tatiana Tomljanovic