Wade Davis and
Special to Undercurrent
LNG has a bright future but it must be a safe future*.
Woodfibre LNG has proposed the construction of an LNG facility at the head of Howe Sound, an iconic fiord much beloved by all British Columbians and especially those of the lower mainland.
Opposition to the project to date has largely focused on whether we as a province should be reindustrializing a waterway that has only recently and at great expense been cleaned up. Having finally staunched the flow of heavy metals from the Britannia copper mine, at one time the largest in the British empire, do we want to allow LNG tanker traffic in a fiord only now being repopulated with herring, salmon orcas and humpback whales? Every municipality on Howe Sound has passed resolutions opposing the project.
The project is currently under review by the BC Environmental Assessment Office (EAO), whose formal mandate is to give “full and fair consideration to all interests” Their process obliges the EAO to examine the Woodfibre proposal for, among other concerns, all potential adverse health effects that may occur during the life cycle of the project. To accomplish this the EAO is expected to consider technical studies that may identify significant adverse effects, reasons in effect to deny an application.
The proponents of Woodfibre maintain that LNG is a perfectly safe gas. We beg to differ. In liquid state (-162 C) methane does not burn. A LNG spill on land can be a nonevent. A spill over water presents an entirely different and potentially dangerous scenario.
In the wake of 9/11 the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned Sandia National Laboratories to undertake the first scientific assessment of risks associated with LNG tankers. Critically this report focused on LNG spills over water. The Sandia Reports (2004, updated 2008) provide the foundation for the U.S. Coast Guard’s current position on LNG safety, and provide it with the basis for evaluating the risks associated with LNG marine traffic.
The science demonstrates that LNG spills over water can result in the liquefied gas mixing with water vapor from the ocean, creating a vapor cloud, which being heavier than air, will not instantly evaporate and will instead spread over the sea and adjacent lands. As it disperses, mixing with the surrounding air, the concentration of natural gas lowers. When it reaches fifteen percent the vapor cloud becomes highly flammable.
The Sandia Reports suggest two equally haunting scenarios. In the wake of an accident the gas may ignite and burn as a pool fire in the immediate area of the spill. Alternatively, in the absence of an “ignition event”, the LNG may disperse as a vapor cloud spreading more than a mile from the spill, covering ocean and land until it encounters an “ignition source”, sparking a conflagration.
While the Sandia Reports acknowledges that such “unignited” vapor clouds are “unlikely”, the very fact that they are possible led the U.S. government to place simple and fundamental risk management controls on all LNG tanker traffic and new facilities. According to these stipulations the route from any shore facility to international waters must be carefully mapped, taking into account three zones.
The first considers the risk of pool fires and extends 500 meters on each side of the tanker’s route. The second, extending 1600 meters on either side, anticipates the consequence of an accidental spill, leading to an unignited vapor cloud. The third zone extends a total of 7000 meters, reflecting the greater danger of a spill caused by a deliberate act of terrorism. By law, proponents of any new LNG facility in the U.S. must identify along the entire tanker transit route any population centers, residential or commercial districts, including schools, hospitals and churches found within the outer perimeter of these zones.
Woodfibre’s proposed tanker route extends from the head of Howe Sound, south past the shores of West Vancouver. Were the U.S. risk assessment criteria to be applied, significant parts of West Vancouver, Bowen Island and other Howe Sound communities, home to tens of thousands of people, would fall within the hazard zones as delineated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Indeed were the Woodfibre project to be in play in the U.S. it would categorically be rejected, on the basis of risk assessment and safety alone.
The fact that Canada, unlike the U.S., has no regulations concerning the positioning of LNG facilities and the tanker routes that serve them, does not absolve our provincial government and its agent, the EOA, from its primary obligation to look after the safety of its citizens. There may be places along the coast of British Columbia where LNG facilities can be safely established. But Howe Sound is not one of them.
*LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) is methane gas super cooled to -162 C where it becomes a liquid and its volume diminishes by a factor of 600.
Wade Davis and Tom Rafael live on Bowen Island. Davis is Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. Rafael, a retired lawyer, holds a Doctor of Law degree from the University of British Columbia. This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail.