Tilbury Island is a low-lying stretch of land a few kilometres from the mouth of the Fraser River, tucked in the industrial heart of the city of Delta.
Trucks rumble along flat, gently winding roads, and the sprawling dogwood tree-peppered landscape hosts rich farmland, craft breweries and, of course, industrial facilities. The Fraser River winds through the area, small patterns eddying across its calm, murky waters.
Besides the growl of truck engines, the area seems peaceful enough, but Tilbury Island is at the centre of a debate that’s leading environmental groups to picket the provincial legislature, and cities to vote in opposition.
The island is home to FortisBC’s Tilbury Island LNG facility, which the utility company is seeking to expand by adding additional LNG storage and a jetty where it could load tankers bound for international markets.
The expansion project would double the facilities’ current storage to 142,000 cubic metres and increase LNG production capacity to 7,700 tonnes per day, from the current 700 tonnes. That’s small by LNG standards — the LNG Canada project in Kitimat is expected to produce 38,000 tonnes a day. But it’s enough to raise concerns for nearby municipalities and environmental and health advocates.
FortisBC says the facility currently stores LNG to be used in the Lower Mainland and produces LNG for transportation, including BC Ferries and Seaspan Ferries vessels.
The expansion plan is furthest along, and FortisBC has submitted its detailed project description to the province, which will now decide if the project is ready for an environmental assessment.
If approved, construction could start in early 2023 and be done by 2026, according to the FortisBC website.
The province has not yet approved either of these projects, but advocates say large industrial projects are rarely blocked under the BC Environmental Assessment Act.
In the expansion project’s description, Fortis says the project is necessary to “respond to a widespread gas shortage in B.C.’s Lower Mainland” and to help B.C. “reduce air pollutants compared to other fossil fuels.”
Opponents aren’t buying it. They say the project’s economic justifications are faulty, the environmental risks are extreme and that the risk to human health is unjustified.
The municipality of Delta, where the project is proposed, has not yet taken a stance, while the Delta Chamber of Commerce supports the project.
Environmental organizations, like the Wilderness Committee, My Sea to Sky, Stand.earth and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment also oppose the project and are actively organizing to pressure the government to cancel it before it gets off the ground.
Last week, Dogwood BC held a rally at the Victoria legislature to oppose fracking and LNG in B.C. and to raise awareness about the health impacts of the industry.
FortisBC declined an interview for this story. When asked to respond to each of the concerns raised by opponents, FortisBC directed The Tyee to its website about LNG.
A major — though improbable — health risk is a potential 3.5-kilometre-wide “firestorm” that could “wipe out a good portion of south Richmond,” says Eoin Finn, a researcher with My Sea to Sky with a PhD in physical chemistry from McMaster University.
The firestorm is only a risk if several things go catastrophically wrong, including a plane or a ship “punching” a hole in the side of a loaded LNG tanker travelling out of the Fraser, Finn says, adding that an event like this has never happened but is still possible.
FortisBC’s website says LNG tankers are built with a lot of safety precautions, like double-hulled containers, leak detection technology and emergency shutdown systems. It notes there has never been an incident involving an LNG tanker in 60 years. It also says in the event of a leak LNG would warm, turn back into a gas and dissipate.
But Finn says there’s an extreme risk in the period between a spill and when the gas eventually dissipates. He says a spill would allow LNG, cooled to minus 162 C, to pour out onto a waterway, freezing the water and spreading across the surface, warming and vaporizing as it goes.
“Gas released when you put a hole in the side of an LNG tanker doesn’t float magically up into the air. It stays close to the ground and forms a low fog that’s very flammable the further out you go. It would catch fire and cause not an explosion, but a firestorm,” Finn says.
Because of this risk, U.S. Coast Guard regulations prohibit LNG tankers or terminals from being within 3.5 kilometres of human habitation, Finn says. FortisBC’s website says there are three LNG facilities in the U.S. within 3.5 kilometres of residential areas.
The same regulations do not exist in Canada. In 2015, the Wilderness Committee created a map showing what parts of the Lower Mainland would be damaged if a 3.5-kilometre-wide firestorm were to happen. But the risks extend beyond that map, Finn says.
The Port of Vancouver is the only port in the Lower Mainland where commercial vessels, including tankers carrying LNG, can refuel, according to Alanna Smith, a port spokesperson. Tankers can refuel at all of the port’s sites, including English Bay, Inner Harbour and Indian Arm.
Currently no tankers carrying LNG refuel at the port, because there are no LNG export facilities in the area, Smith added.
Finn says that means if the Tilbury jetty is built, the threat of the worst-case disaster would extend to communities around English Bay if ships refuelled after being loaded. Even empty ships will have some LNG in their tanks to keep the tanks cool, he adds.
“If you tried to pick a location that was worse, you’d have a hard time in B.C. than Tilbury,” he said.
There are also health risks associated with increasing fossil-fuel emissions and creating new fracking sites in northeast B.C. to supply the Tilbury plant, according to the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
Dr. Marianne Rev, a member of CAPE, says “so-called natural gas” is made almost entirely of methane, a greenhouse gas with 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide within its first 20 years in the atmosphere.
The industry releases a lot of methane into the atmosphere through leaks, also known as fugitive emissions, during drilling and fracking. In July, the province reported fugitive emissions are double what it previously calculated.
FortisBC’s website says LNG is a “cleaner marine fuel,” and that Tilbury LNG “produces LNG that is among the lowest carbon intensity in the world.”
Rev also critiqued the province’s “sneaky” accounting used to greenwash natural gas.
Natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels if you only count what comes out of the smokestack, she says.
But when you use lifecycle accounting, which includes upstream emissions from fracking and methane leaks, and downstream emissions, like from shipping overseas and re-gasifying LNG, it “wipes out any advantage so-called natural gas has.”
CAPE is also concerned about the health risks associated with living close to fracking sites. Doctors in northeast B.C. have been reporting unusually high numbers of illnesses and cancers, but research is being stalled by patients afraid they’ll lose their oil and gas jobs if they participate, Rev says.
There are also concerns about the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the projects will create.
Federal and provincial governments say Canada needs to hit net-zero emissions by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts. The International Energy Agency issued a report this spring saying to hit that goal the world needs to reduce global demand for natural gas by 55 per cent by mid-century.
The Tilbury expansion project will produce between 7.5 million to 11.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in its 40- to 60-year lifetime — and that’s before counting the emissions created by actually burning the fossil fuel it’s liquifying for export, according to FortisBC’s detailed project description.
The projected CO2 emissions from the Tilbury plant don’t include upstream or downstream emissions, Finn says. If it did, the number would be closer to 14 million tonnes of CO2, he added.
Climate change is a risk, but there are also local environmental risks to consider.
Elder Lekeyten, a member of the Kwantlen First Nation, told The Tyee he’s concerned the project will further threaten Fraser River salmon.
Lekeyten says fossil fuel companies “already killed off many, many salmon species that aren’t coming back anymore. Now all of the animals are waiting for the salmon to come home, humans too, to feed our children.”
Fossil fuel companies and their shareholders are “there for the dollar and nothing else,” he adds.
“We don’t know who the shareholders and stakeholders of Tilbury are, just that they’ll be the ones to destroy an ecosystem when million of tonnes of fossil fuels are spilt,” he says. “Their pipes can explode from weakness. When that happens, who will be the ones to clean it up? Who will be to blame?”
FortisBC is a subsidiary of the Newfoundland-based Fortis Inc., Canada’s largest private utility company. The majority of company shares are held by institutions, with the largest shares being held by the Royal Bank of Canada, at 6.7 per cent, and the Bank of Montreal, at 4.7 per cent.
Peter McCartney, senior campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, says the risks are unnecessary because FortisBC exaggerates the demand for natural gas.
The company likes to warn people they’ll freeze during the winter without natural gas, McCartney says.
At a June media information session, Tyler Bryant, FortisBC’s low-carbon strategy and policy manager, spoke about how on the coldest days demand for natural gas is in danger of surpassing supply.
FortisBC needs to build extra storage to meet an increase in energy demand during cold winter days or to protect from unexpected shortages, like from upstream malfunctions, and that the stored gas can be used to fill gaps, he said.
On Oct. 9, 2018, the Enbridge natural gas pipeline explosion near Prince George caused natural gas shortages across B.C.
But Finn says the “double-coincidence” of an unexpected shortage hitting the same time as one of Vancouver’s rare cold snaps is statistically likely to happen once every 4,000 years.
FortisBC also says LNG can replace coal as a fuel source in international markets and replace other marine fuels.
But evidence, like full life-cycle accounting, shows swapping one fossil fuel for another has “no benefit to the climate,” McCartney says.
McCartney also points out that FortisBC customers might be the ones to foot the bill for the Tilbury expansion project.
In December 2020, FortisBC asked the BC Utilities Commission if it could charge its customers for the $778 million it would take to build the Tilbury Phase 2 LNG storage tank expansion.
The $778 million only applies to the facilities' storage tank and not the second part of Phase 2 expanding production.
So what now?
The Wilderness Committee has launched a campaign urging anyone with concerns to contact their MLA to pressure Environment Minister George Heyman and the Environment Assessment Office to oppose the Tilbury projects.
McCartney says the only reason the project is being built in such a densely populated area is because it’s cheaper for FortisBC to build on pre-existing infrastructure than it is to build new, further away from the Lower Mainland.
“These are extremely hazardous materials with no place in our communities,” he says. “In 50 years, we’re going to look back and wonder what the hell we were doing.”