LNG and Howe Sound: Do they mix well together?

Photo: Tim Gage, flickr creative commons.

Photo: Tim Gage, flickr creative commons.

Photo from My Sea to Sky website. Mapping by Wilderness Committee.

Photo from My Sea to Sky website. Mapping by Wilderness Committee.

One of the most contentious developments within the greater Vancouver region has been the proposal of developing a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facility in Howe Sound, British Columbia. After years of ecological recovery and rebirth, the facility has environmental groups concerned about the impacts of the project on this local fjord.

Liquified natural gas (LNG) is fracked methane that must be cooled to -162 degrees Celsius so that it can be transported along pipelines and eventually shipped in supertankers. The gas takes up far less space in its dense liquid form, making it possible to transport large quantities of it that can then be turned back into gas form wherever it will be used.

The proposal seeks to build an export facility at the old Woodfibre pulp mill in Howe Sound, located just seven kilometres southwest of Squamish, British Columbia. Woodfibre LNG has been licensed to export 2.1 million tonnes of LNG out of Howe Sound every year - which translates to the transport of cooled methane up and down Howe Sound three to four times every month.

Environmental groups have expressed many concerns around the development of the Woodfibre LNG project. Both the lack of regulations in tanker traffic and the dumping of chlorinated water have the community concerned about the safety of both the human and ecological ecosystems of Howe Sound.

There are international guidelines that prohibit tankers from using routes that are within a certain distance of inhabited areas. Regions within 1,600 meters of tanker routes are declared “high-danger zones” that could lead to serious injuries if there was a spill.  Also, LNG ports must also not interrupt routes used for fishing, recreational or ferry purposes.

These concerns have largely not been addressed yet, as the B.C. Liberals and Woodfibre LNG have not adhered to the guidelines outlined in the Society of International Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators LNG Terminal Siting Standards; guidelines that are generally observed internationally to keep LNG tankers safe and to prevent accidents.

The Woodfibre LNG facility could also directly affect the sea life in Howe Sound as the necessary methane-cooling process involves the chlorination of seawater. Every hour, the plant would intake 17,000 tonnes of seawater, the equivalent of seven olympic-sized swimming pools. The used seawater would be put back into the ocean after being heated and chlorinated.

Community groups have noted that seawater could be placed back into the ocean untreated, although Woodfibre LNG has noted a process where exposure to air and a dechlorination agent would be used to make sure released water meets certain quality guidelines.

The water could also be released hotter than at its intake. Woodfibre LNG has noted temperature ceilings of 21 degrees C (or 10 degrees above water temperature in Howe Sound, whichever is less), but many groups aren’t satisfied with this criteria as the water will still be hotter than necessary.

With the increase in eelgrass beds comes the herring, which provide more food for the salmon, which in turn lead the whales and dolphins back up the Sound; it has taken nine years, but the resurgence of life in Howe Sound has been a marvel and a joy for the community to witness. If this seawater were to be dumped back into Howe Sound hotter and chlorinated, it could threaten delicate herring and salmon populations, potentially reversing the rebirth of the Howe Sound ecosystem since Woodfibre originally closed in 2006.

The provincial government supports the proposed FortisBC pipeline and Woodfibre LNG facility in Squamish, championing them as opportunities for more jobs and economic growth for the province.

This October, the Woodfibre LNG project received conditional approval from the Squamish Nation and an Environmental Assessment Certificate from the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office. The Squamish Nation agreed to approve the project as long as Woodfibre LNG meets the environmental conditions and economic needs of the Squamish people. These approvals are not a blanket green light; the Squamish Nation has named 25 conditions to be met by the entire project, and Woodfibre LNG has said that only thirteen of those conditions apply to them directly.

The proposed FortisBC pipeline still needs to meet the Squamish Nation’s conditions and the Federal government has yet to provide any assessment of the project.

My Sea to Sky is a grassroots organization that has been voicing concerns and opposing the building of Woodfibre LNG from Squamish since early 2014. After the Environmental Assessment Office issued their certificate approving the project, My Sea to Sky co-founder Melyssa Hudson contested the “rubber stamping process” currently in place in B.C., calling it a “weak veil of environmental integrity”. She went on to critique the approval of the proposed chlorinated cooling system, a type of system that has been banned in California. The U.S. federal government will not approve “any new LNG facilities due to the amount of harm it has done to sea life” (you can read the entire press release here).

The entire Woodfibre LNG project needs only the approval of the federal government and the Squamish Nation’s approval of  the FortisBC pipeline before it can go ahead. While the new federal Liberal government has promised a review of the environmental assessment process, it is unclear how long this will take.

If you feel strongly about the prevention of this project that will interfere in Howe Sound, you can sign the Howe Sound Declaration from My Sea to Sky. The website is also an excellent resource if you want more information about the community’s concerns. My Sea to Sky has done a lot of research on how Woodfibre LNG will directly affect the people and all living creatures of Howe Sound.

Justin Trudeau has said that “only communities can grant permission” for resource development; with our communities speaking up about their concerns for this facility, it’s time to make sure the government listens.