While LNG exports would be good for western Canadian natural gas, the industry needs to win over local communities ahead of opposition to upstream activity, warns an LNG Canada official.

“All those interests, which are currently loading up, ready to get into more advocacy against upstream development — they’re watching LNG because they know that there is an impact there,” said Susannah Pierce, external relations director of the Royal Dutch Shell plc-led LNG Canada megaproject proposed for Kitimat, B.C.

Shell and its partners are expected to make a decision this year on whether to build the proposed project to liquefy gas for export to Asia.

“So we cannot ignore that component of it. Because if we do, we’ll find ourselves facing more and more challenges on the ground,” Pierce told a well-attended Gas Processing Association of Canada (GPAC) lunch on Wednesday.

She said the impact of current drilling is already causing some homeowners great concern.

Anti-oilsands groups opposing the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline were so successful that the only way the project could move forward was for the federal government to buy it. But while bitumen has been vilified as “dirty oil,” natural gas has enjoyed the benign image of a clean-burning “bridge” fuel to a zero-emissions future.

However, the anti-carbon crowd doesn’t see it that way.

“From the perspective of the groups that would like to oppose fossil fuel development, natural gas development is not a good thing,” Pierce said. “... And they’re not going away.”

She said the new opposition isn’t to LNG per se, but to upstream activity, including hydraulic fracturing, methane, increased seismic activity, increased carbon emissions and the cumulative impact of drilling.

“So if we look at it just from a production perspective ... we’re missing the other side of this, which is those who are opposed to it ... because they don’t want to see all that activity — which is why we need to get ahead of our own advocacy in preparation for that,” the LNG executive urged her industry audience.

“Because we will see the hydraulic fracturing review. We will see increasing requests for it to be a public interest hydraulic fracturing review. You will still see First Nations and other groups feeling as though the [industry isn’t] recognizing their interests and concerns.”

Pierce, who took part in a GPAC panel discussion on Canada’s natural gas future, exhorted people in industry to be proactive and to do the “social engineering” ahead of the technical engineering to get communities on side before filing regulatory applications.

“So let us not lose sight of the fact of the opportunities, but also the challenges that we will face if we don’t do it right,” she said. “That is taking care of the environment. That is consulting with locals to get their support in advance, helping to fill the vacuum, which by the way, is being filled by those who would oppose upstream development. Let’s get our own advocacy in there and fill the vacuum.”

When it comes to getting the community onside, Pierce knows what she is talking about. LNG Canada has “almost 100 per cent” First Nations support for the LNG project and related pipeline, she said. “It is unprecedented.” Pierce said, noting that people have lawn signs saying, “We want LNG Canada.”

The reason, she said, is that LNG Canada talked to people at the grassroots level and listened to local concerns. “We embedded them in the environmental permitting process for our consultations before we even filed an application.”

She urged people in the oil and gas industry to become better communicators. While those in charge of projects are highly skilled technically, their Achilles’ heel, as Pierce sees it, is an inability to explain how a development will benefit local communities.

“We knew how to do all the engineering but the social engineering was zero.”

She added: “Why does LNG Canada have support? Because on some level, on one issue or another, we’re connecting with people on things that are important to them. Why does one person in Terrace want LNG Canada to go ahead? He recognizes the opportunity, not that he’s going to have a job in the plant, but because he knows his housing value is going to go up. And ... maybe his kids will come back home.

“So when we start to actually communicate in ways with local people that will mean something to them, that makes a difference. And so all of those people who were just sort of listening to you become advocates. We have now advocates for this project — advocates in the environmental permitting process, advocates to Ottawa, advocates to Victoria. They have rallies — grassroots rallies. I’ve done nothing — they do it on their own.”