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Energy Megaprojects, and How They Aim to Seduce Us

‘Rigorous’ reviews that aren’t so inclusive. Sparkling clean pipelines. Smooth sailing tankers. Don’t be fooled.

Ian Gill 18 Mar

Ian Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. He is currently president of Discourse Media. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here.

Imagine if you lived in a nice quiet community of about 30 people, and the Chinese government got permission to plunk a $20-billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on your doorstep.

Holy snapping duck shit! Chances are you’d want a pretty strong say in whether that could or should happen, under what conditions, with whose permission — and you’d want a very clear, objective analysis of the costs and benefits, and the risks, to you, your family, your neighbours, not to mention the physical place that would be so massively disrupted by such a project — you know, the place you currently call home.

Most of us don’t live in nice quiet communities of 30 people — or maybe we do. On my residential block in East Vancouver, I’d say that (based on the census’s estimated average of 2.6 people per household in Vancouver) there are 30 people on my side of the street alone. Maybe you live in an old apartment building with 30 people in it total; maybe a condo with 30 people on your floor. Anyway, 30 people isn’t a lot, but $20 billion is, and right now, on Digby Island — right across the harbour from Prince Rupert in northern B.C. — the tiny community of Dodge Cove is staring down a project that would pretty much destroy it.

It’s become a “sacrifice zone” — yet another bucolic corner of the world at risk of being flattened on the anvil of progress.

“This community has a right to exist unmolested,” says Des Nobels, Dodge Cove resident, long-time fisherman, diligent regional politician and a tired man with a tether whose end he is very close to arriving at. “They (the company planning the project) says we’re their only problem, and we assured them we’ll be as big a problem as possible.”

The company that wants to pipe fracked gas to Digby Island — home to the Prince Rupert airport, Dodge Cove’s motley lot, and barely a stone’s throw from the City of Prince Rupert itself — is Aurora LNG. Aurora is a joint venture between Nexen Energy and INPEX Gas British Columbia Ltd. INPEX is Japan’s largest oil and gas exploration and production company, and its B.C. subsidiary fracks shale gas in the Horn River, Cordova and Liard basins in B.C.’s northeast. Nexen was a Canadian company till it was bought in 2013 by CNOOC Ltd., China’s national oil company.

Nexen and INPEX want to build a pipeline to an LNG plant and export terminal they intend to build on Digby Island, near the mouth of the Skeena River. If that has a familiar ring to it, maybe that’s because Malaysia’s national oil company, Petronas, wants to do pretty much the same thing, terminating on nearby Lelu Island — where a mighty resistance has already been joined by some members of the Gitwilgyoots tribe of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation. Petronas already has qualified if controversial approval to build its project (First Nations, and others, are contesting the permit in court). Aurora doesn’t have an environmental certificate yet but it is working hard to get one — and it could be mere weeks away from succeeding. “Aurora has been very good at flying under the radar,” Nobels said.

851px version of DodgeCoveBC.jpg
A view of Dodge Cove, BC by the water. Photo by W. Brooks.

While much of the media chatter about pipelines in B.C. has been about Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project (permit denied), Petronas’s Pacific NorthWest LNG (approved), Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain project (approved, also being fought in court), and Shell’s recent decision to shelve its Prince Rupert LNG project due to market conditions, Aurora LNG has been quietly undergoing an assessment by B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office. Through what the boffins call a “substituted process,” the federal government takes a back seat, deferring to Christy Clark’s gas-loving government to objectively examine the pros and cons of the deal and impose whatever conditions it deems necessary if the project passes muster.

These approval processes typically cost millions of dollars. Aurora’s proposal has been in review for more than two years now, and in addition to the proponent and its galaxy of high-priced experts, more than 100 interested parties — the province, the feds, First Nations, local governments, a “full suite of the agencies” according to the EAO’s project assessment manager Sean Moore — have been poring over Aurora’s plans as part of a technical working group. Its work will be completed on July 8. By Labour Day, Aurora could be approved.

“It’s a pretty rigorous review,” Moore told me.

It’s a stitch up, says Nobels. “The province can do anything it wants.”

The EAO review perforce includes consultation with First Nations, paid for by the federal government, which announced last December that its Participant Funding Program transferred $364,560 to the province to help seven First Nations groups evaluate Aurora’s project. The Gitga’at, Gitxaala, Kitselas and Kitsumkalum First Nations each got $54,040 from the government for the process, while Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla received $67,550 apiece, and the Métis Provincial Council of British Columbia got $13,300. The people of Dodge Cove? At first they were told there was no money for them. Then on the last day of February they were told they could have $12,000, but it couldn’t be applied retroactively to work they had done in the consultation process. The public comment period closed nine days later.

“An afterthought… an afterthought — if we were thought of at all,” says Nobels, He doesn’t begrudge area First Nations getting funds to participate in the project review, but in the case of his community “we basically volunteer our time, search for inconsistencies with what little technical knowledge we have, call in favours from friends… it’s an extremely onerous and lengthy endeavor which takes its toll on people who aren’t versed in all of this.”

Moore said he “cannot comment on the fairness or adequacy of how governments choose to fund public consultation processes” — that’s a policy issue, and the EAO’s policy is that it doesn’t fund public interest groups. He says local communities can rely on “all the agencies that are looking out for their concerns,” but concedes “there is probably a trust challenge.”

Yeah, just maybe. Especially when the province writes, as it did in early February, warning the North Coast Regional District that proposed amendments to Dodge Cove’s Official Community Plan — the only land-use process that gives voice to local interests — “appear to attempt to prohibit key elements of the proposed LNG facility development, in an attempt to render the project infeasible.” It warns that the province has entered into agreements that “provide the proponents with the exclusive right to move forward with the planning necessary to build LNG export infrastructure at their proposed facility sites.” Brian Hansen, assistant deputy minister and lead negotiator, energy and LNG initiatives in the Ministry of Natural Gas Development, claims in a nicely ironic twist that the province is not being properly consulted with by the community, even though — when it comes to planning processes — “(the province) can do what they damn well want,” Nobels says.

In other words, there is a manifest lack of fairness any time big oil and gas, or mining, or logging, or any resource extractor with a commodity lust and some capital, comes to town. This is not exactly breaking news. For decades now, the Dodge Coves of this province — be they on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, in the Great Bear, the Kootenays, the Cariboo, the Chilcotin, up north, on Burnaby Mountain, wherever — have been where the David and Goliath battles between industry and community have been inequitably joined. The technical tables are always stacked against communities, which is why local activists end up resorting — in ways that offend the order of the bureaucratic, technocratic and legalistic mind — to public sympathy. Which is why they end up being called activists in the first place, because industry and their government sponsors prefer to restrict all activity to processes they control. Going outside the process to engage a battle for hearts and minds retains its potency for people who feel that the system renders them impotent. But while this route offers those who resist industrial projects a channel to protest, it also offers industry and governments powerful opportunities to deceive.

Primping the wares

Like pornography, the imagery that proponents of industrial development use these days to primp their wares is soulless, plotless, spotless, and hairless. (Mmm: note to self: that’s a good name for a law firm, or maybe a corporate communications consultancy). These days no proposal for an industrial project that threatens our environment comes without videos or television ads extolling the proponent’s almost childlike reverence for nature, its almost custodial sense of duty to nurture the ecosystems it is about to befoul, its solemn vow to mitigate any “disturbance,” its prophylactic commitment to safety, its championing of the benefits to everyman — the worker, and his or her dependents — and of course an almost prayerful obeisance to the betterment of Indigenous people.

Enbridge’s campaign ads for Northern Gateway were like Dove soap commercials, its depictions of the B.C. coast more suited to promoting a 10-day wilderness adventure in the Great Bear than what its project was actually going to do there, which was to bring tar sands oil to tidewater and clutter our waterways with tankers. Its scripts presumably were written by robots, since it defies belief that an actual human could come up with tripe like, “The first step in making things better is to be sure that it’s not at the expense of making other things worse.” That would be almost Hippocratic if it weren’t so utterly moronic.

Aurora LNG has produced some YouTube bling of its own, including animation of its Digby Island facilities (albeit set to music that would kill even the healthiest libido) that makes the place look like a university campus or a small airport with nice, tidy outbuildings fed by clean white pipes, which rather airbrushes the degree to which these plants are dirty, noisy, dangerous industrial sites that destroy local habitat and pollute the air with, among other things, greenhouse gases that we are supposed to be reducing. Meanwhile, the animation showing the impeccably choreographed arrival and departure of massive LNG tanker ships seems to favour blue skies and waveless and windless ocean conditions for which B.C.’s north coast is not exactly renowned. And of course whenever newspapers or television stations run stories about LNG plants, they illustrate them with company handouts of lovely neat, clean, almost always bright white buildings and pipes and tanks and rustless ships berthed at glistening docks. Is there not a photo editor left in Canadian journalism who might think to find an image of what these facilities actually look like when they are operating?

See what I mean? This rendering of Pacific NorthWest LNG has been used in news reports.

Meantime, after taking Aurora’s “facility tour” on YouTube, you can “meet the team” before viewing another video about your “neighbour of choice,” which might seem a bit ripe to people on Digby Island. Who is choosing whom, exactly? But what’s really curious about all these manipulations is that, other than letting viewers meet the team who are duty bound to say nice things because they are on the payroll, the illustrations seldom depict even cartoon people doing actual work at an actual LNG plant — surprising, given that every sales pitch about LNG features the promise of good, local jobs. Perhaps my favourite entry in the unintended irony category comes courtesy of Pacific NorthWest LNG, the Canadian front for Petronas, which has been at pains to promise jobs and other benefits to local First Nations, all the while assuring everyone that its planned operations on Lelu Island and nearby Flora Bank pose no threat to wild salmon. Check out their Current Opportunities page, scrolling down to look at the background image, with its echo of Toni Onley’s coastal scenes, complete with a fishboat christened — this is cute — Lelu. Note that the spotless boat has neither skipper nor crew, which probably wasn’t intended to be a comment on current or future job opportunities for local fisherfolk.

Aurora, unnaturally

Word has it that Petronas might move its loading docks away from Flora Bank to nearby Ridley Island, an already industrialized site. Lelu will still be flattened to make way for the gas plant — assuming Petronas goes ahead at all, market conditions being what they are.

Over on Digby Island, meantime, some of the locals probably feel like the ghost crew of the good ship Lelu. In the public comment period that ended March 9, almost 800 comments were posted, an overwhelming number (773 against, to 25 for) registering their opposition to Aurora’s plans. Many of the comments were generated via computer-assisted campaigns run by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Committee, the kind of formulaic write-in responses that governments tend to discount as being biased and unscientific. Many commentators, however — including a number of people from Digby Island for whom that last-minute $12,000 came too late — posted detailed, sophisticated and often heartfelt critiques of the project.

To read all 800 or so comments, which I did, is to detect an air of fatalism in some of the responses, and a clear sense of distrust and despair at a process triggered by a proposal that came out of nowhere and that, even if it never gets built, has placed an unconscionable burden on a few people who have nothing else to draw upon except their love of place. One resident calls it a “death sentence” for the community, and another talks of “falsifying” of information presented on maps displayed at project open houses that didn’t even show there was a community of Dodge Cove on Digby Island. “It is ridiculous to wipe an over 100-year-old community off the maps to present to the public a pretty picture of where Aurora LNG wants to build,” the writer said. (In my reading of the comments, there was one Dodge Cove resident who thought the arrival of industry might bring with it a more reliable water supply, so community opposition is not unanimous.)

Aurora has done much to burnish its image. It even sounds innocuous. After all, Aurora is the Roman goddess of the morning. It’s also the name of the princess in Sleeping Beauty. It’s a town in Ontario. It’s a naturally occurring electrical phenomenon, as in borealis. And now, on the north coast of B.C., it is an unnaturally occurring industrial phenomenon that could also lighten the night sky, yet another flickering green light in Christy Clark’s gas-lit casino economy.

Will it happen? If getting a passing grade from a B.C.-led environmental review seems like an awfully low bar, perhaps low gas prices will function as a brake on Aurora’s plans. But Des Nobels isn’t so sure. “CNOOC have the supply, they are the market, they own the ships, they have all the capital in the world. The Chinese want the gas, they want to take it home and do things with it.”

If Aurora gets its permit, Nobels said the people of Dodge Cove can look forward to another couple of years of invasive exploration and site assessment and four to five years of construction. “The net effect of all of the impacts will probably be enough to drive most of us out.” And then those settlement-free maps will prove to have been prescient — there’ll be no problem community of Dodge Cove after all.  [Tyee]

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