- Our Town
From pulp and paper to liquid natural gas
A former pulp mill near Squamish on the North West shores of Howe Sound may get a chance at a second life as a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) processing and export facility, now that the National Energy Board has approved the company’s application to export LNG. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is now asking for public comment on whether a federal environmental assessment is required, and whether the request by the Province of British Columbia to conduct the environmental assessment, should be approved.
If the project goes forward, approximately 3-4 tankers – each roughly one and a half times the size of a BC Ferries Coastal Class Ferry (such as the ferries that travel between Horseshoe bay and Nanaimo) - will pass by Bowen Island every month. Propelled by natural gas and using diesel as a back-up fuel, the double-hulled tankers will carry 2.1 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas to China every year.
Marion Ngo, the manager of communications with Woodfibre Natural Gas Ltd., says the project is still in the early phases of planning, so elements regarding technology, engineering and impacts of the projects are yet to be determined. Many of those details will be revealed through the environmental assessment process, whether it is conducted by the Federal government, Provincial government or both.
However, Ngo says Woodfibre is expecting BC Hydro to provide the power needed to compress the natural gas into liquid form (the gas needs to be cooled to approximately -160 degrees Celcius).
Peter Frinton, Bowen’s representative to the Sea to Sky Clean Air Society, says while the Society is concerned about the re-industrialization of Howe Sound in general, the use of hydro as a source of power largely alleviates concerns about localized air pollution.
“We really need to know the specifics,” says Frinton, “but I think if they were burning natural gas to power their plant they would likely face a lot more opposition. From my personal perspective, I am a lot more concerned about the big picture when it comes to air quality, and questions about say, greenhouse gas emissions created through the natural gas industry as a whole.”
Merran Smith, the Bowen-based director of Clean Energy with Tides Canada, says that the thing to remember about LNG is that it is a fossil fuel. In terms of the energy-intensive process of compressing the gas into liquid, Smith says using hydro-power is definitely the cleanest option, but British Columbia needs to work hard to ensure that the larger process of natural gas extraction does not greatly increase the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
When it comes to shipping, liquefied natural gas is significantly safer, environmentally speaking, than shipping other fossil fuels. If for some reason there was a leak in the storage unit of an LNG tanker, the liquid would spill into the water but would rapidly evaporate instead of remaining as a pollutant in the water, as would be the case with an oil spill.
Victoria-based energy researcher Arthur Caldicott says that LNG technology has greatly improved in recent years.
“Industry likes to show party tricks like the YouTube videos of people throwing matches into LNG, and see the flame be extinguished,” says Caldicott. “The evaporating gas is highly explosive, and any spark could cause all hell to break loose – and Bowen Island is right in the line of fire of the proposed shipping routes from Woodfibre. I would be concerned about tanker traffic navigating through the waters, particularly on a summer’s day when the water is crowded with sailboats, kayakers and other recreational boaters.”
Caldicott says that any kind of crash that involved an explosion would be disastrous, given the fact that LNG evaporates so quickly once its temperature rises, and that the gas is so flammable. Also, if there were a problem in a tanker’s refrigeration system, an explosion could be caused by increasing pressure within the storage tanks as the liquid warms up.
“Anything that has risk built into it - and these tankers do have risks - have cumulative impacts,” says Caldicott. “The more traffic you have on a waterway the greater those risks are. Environmental Assessments in BC, but also at the federal level, have a reputation of not delivering on assessments of cumulative impacts so the idea of fast-tracking this process is less than ideal.”
Any member of the public interested in making a comment on the decision about the environmental assessment must submit their letter, by January 6th, to:
Woodfibre LNG Project
Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
410-701 West Georgia Street
Vancouver, BC V7Y 1C6