Energy Politics and Discourse in Canada: Probing Progressive Extractivism

12 Min Read

May 28, 2024

Sibo Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Professional Communication at Toronto Metropolitan University. He is an Executive Board Member of both the International Environmental Communication Association and the Canadian Communication Association. His latest book Energy Politics and Discourse in Canada: Probing Progressive Extractivism is available now from Routledge.

In the realm of Canadian energy politics, Alberta’s oil sands often overshadow the discourse surrounding Canada’s natural gas sector. The politics and controversies concerning the development of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector in British Columbia (BC) exemplify this disparity. Despite being a central issue of provincial politics between 2011 and 2017, relevant discussions have since waned in public discourse. This lack of public attention is concerning given natural gas’ projected role as a transitional fuel in the coming decades and the contentious social and environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking), which have fueled the shale gas boom in both the U.S. and Canada.1

My book Energy Politics and Discourse in Canada delves into the under-explored terrain of BC LNG by critically examining relevant public discourses from late 2011 to mid-2017. By utilizing the argumentative discourse analysis framework (Dryzek, 2021), the book elucidates the emergence of two competing discourse coalitions among stakeholders and subsequently assesses the impact of the narratives constructed by these coalitions.2

Front cover, Sibo Chen, Energy Politics and Discourse in Canada: Probing Progressive Extractivism (New York, 2024).

The pro-LNG coalition crafted a storyline emphasizing the ability of the BC LNG industry to foster both environmental sustainability and economic growth. With natural gas often perceived by the general public as a cleaner alternative to traditional fossil fuels, the BC government championed LNG’s environmental merits while downplaying the ecological repercussions of fracking, pipeline development, and liquefaction facility operations along the BC coast. Despite these efforts, conflicts over cost strained relations between the government and industry stakeholders, leading to the shelving of numerous LNG projects and contention within the pro-LNG coalition. Nevertheless, the positioning of natural gas as crucial for the economic future of interior and North BC garnered considerable populist support in rural communities, with residents adopting a “LNG or Bust” mentality. Driven by this mentality, they attributed project setbacks to environmental activism and regulatory hurdles.

In contrast to their pro-LNG counterparts, members of the anti-LNG coalition come from diverse backgrounds but lack comparable financial and political backing. Despite these disadvantages, their discursive strategies proved potent, resulting in successful delays and cancellations of several LNG project proposals. Notably, the anti-LNG storyline leveraged market analyses to expose the precarious financial underpinnings of BC LNG projects, challenging the conventional “jobs versus the environment” dichotomy. Furthermore, opponents expanded the political base of their resistance by framing it as a battle against political opacity and corruption within the BC government. They advocated for transparent public consultations and asserted their Indigenous sovereignty rights.

To further evaluate the impact and effectiveness of both pro-LNG and anti-LNG narratives, I conducted a content analysis of media coverage surrounding the now-cancelled Pacific NorthWest LNG project. CBC News, as a public broadcaster, framed the project-related controversies as manifestations of a political conundrum, whereas commercial outlets such as The Globe and Mail and The National Post leaned towards industry perspectives. In particular, columnists at the right-leaning The National Post spearheaded criticisms on regulatory reviews, environmental protests, and Indigenous opposition. Meanwhile, left-leaning alternative media such as The Tyee and National Observer embraced the anti-LNG narrative, focusing on the project’s environmental risks, as well as how its regulatory review process revealed threats to local democracy and Indigenous sovereignty.

Top: Canada Action Billboard: "B.C. LNG Development is Indigenous Economic Reconciliation," Bottom: Protestors stand on a pedestrian bridge holding a large banner that reads "STOP LNG/FRACKING GOV'T SUBSIDIES.
Top: Pro-LNG Advertisement, Victoria, B.C.,Canada Action, Bottom: Anti-LNG protestors on a B.C. overpass, Climate Justice Victoria.

The complexities underlying BC LNG politics and discourse underscored the rise of “progressive extractivism,” which camouflages extractive activities under progressive rhetoric. Progressive extractivism attempted to strike a balance between environmental sustainability and resource-driven economic growth. However, it failed to gain sufficient support from environmentally conscious settler and Indigenous groups, whose collaborative efforts to highlight the negative political implications of BC LNG were strong until changing market conditions prompted industry stakeholders to reassess the economic basis of their proposals. Additionally, the struggles faced by both the BC and Federal governments in reconciling competing interests indicate broader challenges in energy policymaking. These challenges have been further intensified in recent years by the rise of right-wing populism, which stands against rapid energy transitions.

Overall, Energy Politics and Discourse in Canada unravels the intricate tapestry of LNG politics in British Columbia, shedding light on the nuanced discourses surrounding natural gas extraction and its societal implications. By discussing the divergent storylines that shaped the BC LNG controversy it underscores the multifaceted challenges inherent in balancing economic imperatives, environmental responsibilities, and Indigenous rights within the energy landscape.

Notes

1. Vaclav Smil, Natural gas: fuel for the 21st century, 4th ed. (New Jersey, 2015); Sara A. Wylie, Fractivism: Corporate bodies and chemical bonds (Duke University Press, 2018).

2. John S. Dryzek,The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses (Oxford University Press, 2022).

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