CALGARY - There's nothing more urgent right now for Canada than to get into the liquefied natural gas export game, CIBC executive and former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice said Wednesday.
"LNG growth is unfolding in real time, all around the world. The lion's share of investment is up for grabs. The biggest winners are far from being determined," he said in prepared remarks to the Canada LNG Export Forum.
"For Canada, nothing is more urgent right now than getting in the game."
Canada needs to "push ahead with a much greater sense of urgency," or risk having Asian buyers seek supplies from competitors such as Australia and the United States instead, he said.
A number of multibillion-dollar projects are in the works to chill natural gas from northeastern B.C. into a liquid state and ship it across the Pacific to energy-hungry countries such as China, Japan and South Korea.
But Prentice said there are some outstanding issues that need to be worked out, such as a royalty regime that would promote the establishment of an LNG industry and help ensure its long-term success.
"We need to provide the regulatory certainty, the fiscal certainty that people require to make these multibillion-dollar investments," Prentice said in an interview.
"And if we fail to do so, these are opportunities that will languish and we won't take advantage of them."
Other challenges include filling labour shortages, managing environmental risks brought on by increased West Coast tanker traffic, supplying the LNG facilities with enough electricity and solving contract standoffs between buyers and sellers over the price of the gas.
Canada also needs to get a handle on what degree of competition is lurking just south of the border, with some U.S. LNG projects on the drawing board.
Prentice said he doubts all of the dozen or so LNG proposals currently in the works for the West Coast — some further along than others — will go ahead.
"I think it is realistic to contemplate two world-scale facilities off of our West Cost in the next 10 years," he said.
During his time in government, Prentice held the portfolios of environment, industry and Indian affairs and northern development. He is now a senior executive vice-president and vice-chairman at CIBC.
Earlier Wednesday, the head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce warned that Canada has a two-year window to seize the LNG opportunity.
"If we do not put this infrastructure in place in Canada, if we're not prepared to make critical decisions, we will be locked out of markets as our competitors sign long-term contracts," said Perrin Beatty. "We can't afford to dither."
One of the most coveted markets for Canadian natural gas is Japan, which relies heavily on LNG for its energy needs. The country is also looking at alternatives to nuclear power, more than two years after a tsunami and earthquake set off a crisis at its Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Canada is "one of the most promising" supply regions for Japan, said Shinji Fujino, with Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp., a government agency that supports some of the private Japanese companies already active in Canada's natural gas scene, such as Mitsubishi and Inpex.
Fujino said Canada has some advantages over other suppliers, such as its transparent regulatory framework and geographic proximity to Asia. However, he said he has "serious concerns" about workforce shortages and taxes.
The United States, which has seen a huge surge in natural gas production from its shale fields in recent years, is emerging as a potential global LNG competitor.
And since the United States is currently Canada's only export market for natural gas, phrases like "U.S. energy self-sufficiency" are of "huge concern," to producers such as Calgary-based Birchcliff Energy Ltd.
"We need, as Canadians, to develop that LNG and we need alternative markets," said Birchcliff CEO Jeff Tonken.
But Dean Girdis, president of the Downeast LNG project in Maine, said developing his country's LNG industry is no picnic.
There's been a lack of "deep support" from the White House on that front, and regulatory scrutiny over those types of projects has intensified since a major natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., three years ago.
And Girdis said the regulatory approval process moves at a glacial pace, even under the best of circumstances.
"It may sound complex to file a regulatory application here. Trust me — you don't want to do one in the states. It is a political nightmare."