Rigged conventions. Filibustered meetings. Claims of “lost” paperwork.
For more than two years, members of the British Columbia New Democrats say their governing party has used obstructive tactics to prevent an open debate about its fracked gas industry, which last week led to another militarized police raid on Wet’suwet’en territory.
According to interviews with more than a half dozen NDP insiders, a potential vote among members would threaten to put a wrinkle in the government’s ongoing support for the liquified natural gas (LNG) sector.
The extraction of the carbon-intensive fossil fuel is at the heart of the renewed stand-off with Wet’suwet’en land defenders, who have resisted the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline over their unceded lands in northern British Columbia.
If built, the pipeline would transport up to 2.1 billion cubic feet of fracked gas to the coast daily, with the possibility of expanding to five billion cubic feet.
“Members of the BC NDP would oppose destructive LNG extraction if they had any say, but officials in the party have prevented them from potentially throwing a wrench into their agenda by suppressing their democratic rights,” one member told The Breach.
Most spoke to The Breach on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution from party officials.
If the planned expansion of the LNG industry goes ahead, it will become the single largest source of emissions in the province.
Climate experts say that LNG, which also releases methane that is 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, will make it impossible for British Columbia to meet its climate targets.
Quashing an “inconvenient conversation”
After the first militarized RCMP raid on Indigenous encampments in Wet’suwet’en territory in January 2019, party activists from several riding associations submitted a resolution calling for a moratorium on the LNG industry to be debated at the NDP’s fall convention that year.
The resolution was never heard—ranked far down the priority list by a committee hand-picked by the party, it was ultimately kept off the convention floor.
“I feel like the party doesn’t want to know what their members think about LNG, because it would open up a very inconvenient conversation,” Suzanne Senger, who has sat on the party’s environment committee, told The Breach. “Party brass doesn’t want to hear it, the government doesn’t want to hear it.”
A poll earlier this year found that 61 per cent of British Columbians would prefer the government focus on investing in renewable energy, while less than a quarter said they would prefer a focus on LNG.
NDP Provincial Director Heather Stoutenburg told The Breach the party’s resolution committee “uses a variety of criteria to prioritize resolutions at convention. Should delegates wish to amend the wording or prioritization of resolutions, there’s a process to do so.”
That process, however, involves appealing to the same committee that set the order of the resolutions in the first place.
The sidelining of a moratorium vote at the convention was only the first of a series of delays intended to “quash” debate, The Breach was told by party members.
Over the following two years, party officials repeatedly prevented votes from coming up at meetings of the Provincial Council, which is the party’s governing body between conventions.
At a meeting in December 2020, members say NDP President Craig Keating claimed that the resolution had been “lost,” which prevented it from being discussed.
At another meeting in March 2021, officials announced that the LNG resolution and others were no longer under the jurisdiction of Provincial Council.
And in June, in anticipation of the coming convention this fall, some members brought a motion to amend undemocratic prioritization procedures. Members report that officials buried the resolution at the bottom of the agenda and ran out the clock before it could be addressed.
“I saw the ways in which table officers and the provincial executive tried to use pretty unfair tactics,” a member told The Breach. “They change the timing to make it hard to get to resolutions or to move agenda items up so we can get to them.”
“The role of committees is supposed to be doing this work of hearing from members and relaying that,” the same member added. “But there’s an effort to make sure those committees don’t really do that work.”
Stoutenburg told The Breach that there is democratic input at Provincial Council meetings, but members who spoke to The Breach complained of a culture in which democracy is suppressed: chat functions turned off in Zoom meetings, raised hands ignored by the chair at key moments, and access denied to email addresses of riding association presidents, which could facilitate communication outside of forums organized and overseen by party officials.
Keating, who chaired the Provincial Council meetings and implemented new procedural restrictions for Zoom meetings, had not responded to a request for comment by publication time.
Forging ahead with a “boondoggle”
Following on the Liberal government of Christy Clark, BC Premier John Horgan has made the LNG industry—the vast majority of which is based on fracked gas—a central part of his economic development agenda.
His government has committed at least $5.35 billion in public subsidies through tax breaks and incentives to LNG Canada, a consortium of multinational corporations lead by Royal Dutch Shell. The federal government has also kicked in nearly $2 billion in subsidies.
“While the NDP opposed the BC Liberals’ fracking bonanza while in the opposition, upon forming government the NDP has simply gone with the flow,” said William Carroll, a professor of sociology at University of Victoria and co-director of the Corporate Mapping Project which tracks the power of the fossil fuel sector. “That has included giving handouts, which would make some BC Liberals blush, to an industry that needs to be sunset to respect what climate scientists are telling us.”
According to a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the NDP government “has offered a much sweeter deal to the LNG industry than what the previous government was willing to extend.”
Overall fossil fuel subsidies have doubled since Horgan took office, with the provincial government spending $1.3 billion between 2020 and 2021 alone.
“Ironically, demand for LNG is beginning to fade globally, and it is clear that there is an oversupply problem. So purely on commercial grounds, the NDP’s gas push is a complete boondoggle,” Carroll said.
A resolution calling for a moratorium on LNG was submitted for the 2021 NDP convention, which was slated to happen this past weekend but has been delayed until December after the province was battered by historic flooding.
However, that resolution has been listed in the 35th spot in the environment section, leaving no possibility that it will be debated, unless the resolution committee drastically changes the order.
Wet’suwet’en at forefront of opposition to LNG agenda
Despite efforts to sideline a debate, the resistance of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and matriarchs to an LNG pipeline has kept the industry in the headlines.
Coastal GasLink, which is slated to run through old-growth forests, wetlands, and rivers in their unceded territories, would connect fracking facilities in northeast BC to a major LNG Canada processing plant under construction on the coast.
This project, if completed, would add four to six megatonnes of GHGs to the province’s annual emissions, the equivalent of nearly a million more cars on the road.
For more than a decade, clans and house groups of the Wet’suwet’en Nation have built lodges, camps and a healing centre along the path of the pipeline, blocking industry access.
A leaked police report exposed by The Guardian showed that in January 2019 the RCMP were prepared to use lethal force during the first militarized police raid on the blockades.
In January 2020, another high-profile militarized raid of the blockade camps and a healing lodge sparked protests and solidarity actions across Canada.
In late October, several Wet’suwet’en chiefs, backed by over 100 environmental and civic organizations, issued a letter to banks and investors demanding they withdraw their financing of the project, stating that “in no way is Coastal GasLink a responsible, profitable, secure or morally sound investment.”
For the past month, Wet’suwet’en land defenders re-occupied different parts of their territory, blocking Coastal GasLink workers from drilling beneath their headwaters.
After an injunction was granted to TC Energy, the company building the pipeline, the RCMP conducted another raid last week, arresting more than 30 Wet’suwet’en members, allies and two journalists.
“The party has driven away a lot of environmentalists, but there are still many people in the NDP who are grateful to the Wet’suwet’en for holding the line on this hugely destructive, climate-killing project,” one NDP member told The Breach. “They’re holding the line for themselves and for all of us.”
Need for an “alternative vision” for the province
“Once a decision is taken, it’s just ‘shut up and go along with it,’” one longstanding BC NDP member told The Breach. “Members are regarded as campaign fodder and fundraisers, but they don’t really want their input on policy.”
Decisions are made in closed meetings attended by Horgan and key—often unelected—advisors, including the Premier’s Chief of Staff, Geoff Meggs.
“Over the last decades, the BC NDP has taken on a good deal of the surrounding neoliberal political culture, so that by now, with its decisions made in an exceedingly top down way, it appears incapable of articulating an alternative vision for the province,” Carroll said.
“On issues of energy, climate and environment, they have not wanted to ruffle the feathers of the dominant class, instead succumbing to lobbying pressure and focusing instrumentally on winning elections rather than helping lead a real paradigm shift. Corporate capital really is in the driver’s seat.”
The plans to kickstart a LNG industry in British Columbia date back to the Liberal governments of Gordon Campbell and Christie Clark, but were only implemented once the NDP—with Meggs as Horgan’s top advisor—took power.
After leaving office, Clark joined the board of an LNG company and, in 2018, praised the NDP for finalizing a deal for Coastal GasLink and the LNG Canada terminal on the coast—an achievement Clark herself had failed to accomplish while in office.
“They could have changed the climate plan, or had a moratorium on fracking; there were a hundred different things they could have done to stop it, and they didn’t,” the former Premier said. “I’m sure lots of their supporters are not happy about this.”
In recent weeks, as the militarized incursion in Wet’suwet’en territory has followed on the heels of climate change-exacerbated floods that have devastated the province’s infrastructure, a wave of anger at the NDP has seen at least a few party activists tearing up their memberships.
Others argue that abandoning the electoral terrain is exactly what fossil fuel companies and their political allies want to see. Leaving the BC NDP to pursue its fracked gas agenda will strand the next generation of climate activists in British Columbia without a viable electoral home, and cost the federal NDP votes and support, they say.
“The two years we spent fighting to even discuss the LNG subsidies is why we need to elect people to the NDP executive who are passionate about climate action and grassroots democracy,” said Ashley Zarbatany, a party activist who is running for Chair of the Standing Committee on Environment and Economy in elections that close this coming Friday.
“I understand that people are quitting, but if they leave the party, they leave their vote at the door. How can they expect to change things without having a say?”
Zarbatany’s opponent is Melissa Maher, an executive assistant to the Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.
In a statement to The Breach, Maher said “it’s an exciting time to be a New Democrat in BC,” citing a recent award the government won at the UN climate summit in Glasgow.
Maher declined to comment on the LNG industry and the RCMP raid on Wet’suwet’en territory.
“The party’s future really depends on whether the green left within the NDP can gain significant ground,” Carroll said. “That possibility could hold out hope of a robust social-democratic government that offers alternatives to corporate rule, with a vision of decarbonization and a comprehensive strategy for good, green jobs, using the full force of the state and the public sector to lead a just transition.”
“The more people abandon ship because the government isn’t doing what we want, the worse off we’ll be,” said one long time member. “We have to come together—there are way more of us.”