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Unstable Mix: Politics and Liquefied Natural Gas

Citing 'safety concerns,' feds fight LNG project back east -- but not along BC's coast.

Rob Annandale 11 Oct

Rob Annandale is on staff of The Tyee. You can reach him at [email protected].

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PM Harper: Opposes LNG shipments through New Brunswick waters.

Chuck Childress moved to "paradise" over 40 years ago. He enjoys nature, but this veteran of the mining, construction and pulp and paper industries is no enviro-fundamentalist.

"Small- to medium-scale development that doesn't have a big impact on the island, we don't have a problem with that," said the resident of Texada Island where mines and quarries have been a feature since the 19th century. "You've got to mine the minerals where they are and we accept that."

But he does not like what he sees looming on the horizon: the construction of a massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) and power generation facility and a steady flow of super tankers to supply it.

And the positions of federal cabinet ministers on opposite coasts have left Childress and other critics of LNG development in B.C. scratching their heads.

Harper warned Bush on LNG

Federal Veterans Affairs Minister and New Brunswick Southwest MP Greg Thompson has joined local opposition in the fight to keep LNG shipments out of his province's Passamaquoddy Bay and Head Harbour Passage on the way to two proposed facilities in Maine. He has the support of the prime minister who brought the matter up with U.S. President George W. Bush during a recent summit.

"The Government has concerns about the possible impacts on Canada from LNG tanker traffic through Head Harbour Passage," a foreign affairs spokesperson told The Tyee via e-mail. "Specifically, Canada has concerns about the potential impact of LNG tanker traffic on marine safety in the narrow passage of Head Harbour as well as the local wildlife and the fishing industry."

On the other hand, Natural Resources Minister and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Gary Lunn seems to have no such qualms about shipping LNG to potential facilities on Texada Island and further north, in Kitimat. He has avoided taking a clear position on the private initiatives, despite the fact that West Coast environmentalists, like their peers back east, have raised alarms about threats to people, wildlife and fishing.

Although Lunn's position might seem to contradict Thompson's, it is not necessarily at odds with Ottawa's stated policy of assessing dangers on a case-by-case basis.

"The Government of Canada generally supports the development of LNG terminals in North America," the foreign affairs spokesperson wrote. "LNG will be an increasingly important source of natural gas for the continent in coming years."

But Childress, who is the spokesperson for Texada Action Now worries about air pollution from the plant, its impact on property values and the consequences of a possible accident.

"If our federal government is saying there is a safety and environmental concern in Passamaquoddy Bay," Childress wondered, "might there be one here?"

Fears valid?

LNG is natural gas chilled to -160°C so that it occupies a tiny fraction of its normal volume and is easier to transport. Upon arrival, the LNG is re-gasified and can be transported to other markets via pipelines.

LNG facilities must meet both federal and provincial environmental standards but the shipments themselves fall exclusively under Ottawa's jurisdiction. There are currently no LNG shipments in or out of Canada but there are 10 proposed projects nationwide in various stages of development.

The evidence on the risks associated with LNG is mixed.

Canadian government websites play down the dangers, stressing that LNG is non-toxic and non-flammable in its liquid form. At the same time, the feds are using just-released findings -- by the Toronto-based Specialists in Energy, Nuclear and Environmental Sciences (SENES Consultants Ltd.) -- on the New Brunswick controversy as support for their arguments against the proposed Maine terminals.

"The SENES report actually identifies many of the same risks that our government has deemed unacceptable," Minister Thompson said in an e-mail to The Tyee. "The proposed Maine locations are not smart locations. They are not safe locations."

But the researchers' belief that proper precautions would mitigate the dangers has left the companies behind the proposed facilities feeling vindicated.

Some of the studies conducted south of the border have been a little scarier.

A 2003 report for the U.S. Congress talks of the industry's excellent safety record and suggests that risks "while significant, are not as serious as is popularly believed." Nevertheless, it lists three "potentially catastrophic events" should a spill occur (see sidebar).

And then there is the threat of terrorist attacks. A 2005 study led by Clinton-era counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke assessed the likelihood and possible consequences of an attack on an LNG facility or tanker in a densely populated area, in this case Rhode Island. The main conclusion? Keep those things away from people or you are asking for trouble.

In the wake of such studies, there are those who believe the U.S. hopes to download risks to its periphery by tapping into gas shipped to Canada and Mexico.

"While Texada and the Strait of Georgia may be the boonies to Americans, it is home to over 600,000 people and an abundance of wildlife and fish," according to Will Horter, executive director of the Victoria-based environmental group Dogwood Initiative.

End of a 'moratorium'?

For 35 years, it has been a practice to ban oil tankers plying B.C.'s inside passage, but Natural Resources Minister Lunn kicked up controversy earlier this year by claiming no such moratorium ever existed.

LNG shipments bound for the Kitimat facility -- which will require the construction of a 463 kilometre pipeline to Summit Lake near Prince George -- would be travelling through the inside passage, an area less populated than around Texada, but environmentally fragile.

West Coast Environmental Law's Margot McMillan worries about the unknown long-term consequences of a spill in a pristine but treacherous passage where the winter storms are "legendary."

"Why is it not OK on the East Coast," McMillan asked, "but it's OK on the West Coast?"

The answer is really quite simple, according to Horter. Only the federal government's stated position is inconsistent. He believes the real motivation behind opposing shipments through Head Harbour Passage is economic.

"If the government wants to say it's protecting Canada's economic interests, let it be explicit about that," said Horter. "But don't make the argument they're trying to protect coastal communities and the environment."

After all, Thompson is not getting all worked up over another LNG project in his backyard. The Saint John facility is already 50 per cent completed.

And that same economic logic might explain why the government recognizes an "exclusion zone" keeping Alaskan tankers out of B.C.'s inside waters while at the same time allowing other ships carrying condensate bound for Alberta's tar sands to ply those same waters.

"The government has taken the position that somehow east-west traffic doesn't count," according to the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association's Tom Hackney. "And of course, that defies the logic of the moratorium."

Seeking a public say

WestPac LNG and Kitimat LNG claim to have community support for their respective projects which they say will create jobs while offering a greener way to meet the province's growing energy needs. Their opponents are not so sure.

Kitimat LNG came to a 243-point agreement with Haisla leadership, prompting Chief Steve Wilson who is also president of the Kitimat Port Development Society to call it a new standard for cooperation between First Nations, industry and government. But some of the elders have expressed concerns over the impact that big business will have on the community and environment.

The local benefits of the Texada facility are by no means certain either, according to Mike Bruce, communications director for the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union Local 378. He wants to see a firm written commitment on the number of jobs to be created.

"If they're not giving you something definite and they're just dangling a vague carrot, it's probably not going to be of significant benefit," he said, adding that most of the imported gas will likely go to markets outside the province.

And Childress says he learned of Calgary-based WestPac LNG's proposed project from the news despite the company's claims of an extensive local consultation process. For him, the obvious solution is a secret-ballot referendum -- even if it will likely be non-binding -- to establish just how the community feels about the proposed facility.

"Ultimately, you want to do what the majority of people want," Childress said. "If it went the other way, it went the other way. But I don't see that."

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