Torrent of Pipelines Proposals Undermines Environmental Assessment

With the rush of LNG pipeline proposals starting to look something like "spaghetti" on a plate (see map above), it is high time the Liberal Government started listening to the British Columbian people. There are public requests for strategic environmental assessment reports for the cumulative impacts of so many proposals. They cannot look at each one as an individual element when the cumulative impacts will interplay with one another.

 “I just opened up The Interior News yesterday and there is yet another open house,” he says, “a half page advertisement for an open house on another pipeline project. This happens pretty much weekly, sometimes two or three open houses, put on by the companies. Sometimes the same company is proposing two or three pipelines." says Richard Overstall a Smithers lawyer.

Read on this great article from Bill Metcalfe, Vancouver Observer.

4th Dec, 2013 Scale and speed of industrial development in northwest B.C. undermines environmental assessment

A juggernaut of industrial development in northwestern BC is overwhelming environmental groups, First Nations, and other citizens trying to keep up with environmental assessments.  There was a time when they could concentrate of one or two projects without allowing several others to slip past them unnoticed. Not any more.

Shannon McPhail and her colleagues at the Skeena Watershed Protection Coalition worked hard for several years supporting the Tahltan Nation’s fight against Shell Canada’s proposed shale gas project in the Sacred Headwaters. In 2012, Shell abandoned the project, with compensation from the provincial government.

McPhail says she focussed entirely on Shell, to the exclusion of other environmental issues, for many months. “We put blinders on, kept our heads down. That was a strategic decision and we ignored everything else.”

But after the victory she got a shock when she raised her head and took a look around.

She saw hundreds of billions of dollars worth of liquid natural gas (LNG) plants, natural gas pipelines, mines, run-of-river hydro, port upgrades, and industry upgrades, all in different stages of proposal, investment, acceptance and construction.

“We were completely overwhelmed because we were getting hundreds of referrals,” McPhail says. “We thought, wow, there is so much going on and it is all happening so fast, we don’t feel like anybody has a handle on it.”

Richard Overstall, a Smithers lawyer specializing in natural resource and aboriginal issues, says there is no way the public can keep up.

“I just opened up The Interior News yesterday and there is yet another open house,” he says, “a half page advertisement for an open house on another pipeline project. This happens pretty much weekly, sometimes two or three open houses, put on by the companies. Sometimes the same company is proposing two or three pipelines.

“There are people, corporations, and government departments rushing for something they are not sure is there,” Overstall says. “It is more of a holy grail than anything thought out or substantive. And when they get caught up in that, like in the Klondike gold rush, all rational thinking goes out the window. We have got 12 or 13 gas pipeline proposals going to the coast, and I have characterized that as a plate of spaghetti, all these coloured routes going all over the place.

The avalanche of projects is a problem for the Tahltan Central Council as well. Tahltan territory encompasses about 93,500 square kilometers in the vicinity of the Stikine River and its tributaries in northwestern B.C.

“We are inundated with exploration permits coming in,” says council president Annita McPhee, “and they often give you a limited deadline to respond so by the time you respond, sometimes it is too late. Even if you do respond, they ignore our comments.”

One of the most troubling projects for the Tahltan is Fortune Minerals’ proposed open pit coal mine at Mount Klappan in the area of the Sacred Headwaters. The Tahltan vehemently oppose the project but the provincial government has permitted exploration. The project is in the pre-application stage in the province’s environmental review process.

“They had a permit to do their exploration despite massive concerns from our people and the public,” says McPhee, “and despite resistance by our people to protect the land, but it still went through.”

Another vast investment of time and energy by many First Nations and community groups was the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, which may have allowed other projects to proceed virtually unnoticed.

Most of the proposed mines, LNG plants, LNG pipelines, and hydro projects are subject to the provincial environmental assessment process, which is supposed to include public input. But it’s a mammoth job for a community group with limited funding to prepare for one assessment, much less dozens of them.

The complexity of many of the proposals is also daunting, like the Pacific Northwest LNG plant proposed for Lelu Island in the Skeena estuary near Prince Rupert.

Luanne Roth of the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Society in Prince Rupert is spending most of her time on it these days. She says the group has had to partially postpone its attempts to keep oil tankers off the coast in order to respond to the two Pacific Northwest LNG environmental assessments, both in process now, one for the gas plant and another for the pipeline that will feed it.

Normally when you have a company that is spending billions of dollars on a project like this one,” Roth says, “that would involve the whole community and people all up and down the Skeena. Everyone who relies on Skeena salmon would be fighting this full time.”

Roth says the proposed plant could threaten air quality (including onset of acid rain) as well as the habitat and survival of salmon and other aquatic species. The project includes a trestle across Flora Bank, which contains eelgrass beds that provide both food and shelter for salmon smolts entering the ocean from fresh water, helping them adjust to salt water. The Skeena River is the second largest producer of salmon in B.C., after the Fraser.

But Roth says it is not just one LNG plant. She says the Skeena estuary and the Prince Rupert area face other potential projects including at least one other LNG proposal, coal trains, a potash terminal expansion, other port expansions, oil by rail, old pulp mill chemicals in sediments that might be dredged, and a harbour full of tankers carrying oil and LNG.

How would all those projects together affect Prince Rupert and the Skeena estuary? What might the cumulative impacts be? Hardly anyone in government or industry appears to be asking.

But the Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research is asking. The Smithers-based group is headed by Pat Moss, who has a philosophical and strategic approach borne of her 35-plus years of experience in many environmental issues in the northwest, starting with the Kitimat oil port (turned down by the federal government in 1978) through her 16 years working against the Kemano Completion project (cancelled by the B.C. government in 1995), and her involvement at the provincial and federal level on working groups that created environmental assessment legislation in the first place.

“We and other environmental organizations are trying to get the government to take more of a lead,” Moss says. “If there is going to be LNG, then how many projects should we have? Shouldn’t we just have one corridor, instead of a mess of pipelines going everywhere? There needs to be a broader look at all developments at once, not just LNG.”

So the Northwest Institute has collaborated with the University of Victoria Law School to produce a detailed report advocating regional cumulative environmental assessments. They sent it to the provincial environment minister in August along with a letter asking the government to support the idea.

Environment minister Mary Polak replied saying that such an approach is not needed because B.C. has one of the best environmental assessment processes in the world.

But there are others in the government who think the idea has some merit.

In September the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services hit the road in B.C. to get public input for the 2014 provincial budget. At their stop in Smithers, Richard Overstall, who is a Northwest Institute board member, addressed the committee, arguing for regional environmental cumulative impact assessments not just on environmental grounds but as good economic and social policy.

The standing committee appears to have heard him, because in a report on its findings released in November it recommends that the government “consider a strategic, cumulative environmental assessment of LNG projects in northwest BC and the creation of a common energy corridor for successful projects.”

The Tahltan Nation is also attempting to convince the provincial government to take a more long-term strategic approach to industrial development. In March the group and the provincial government signed a shared decision-making agreement that would allow collaboration on natural resource issues.

McPhee says it is too early to tell how it is working because the parameters are still being worked out. “But we are hopeful, otherwise we would not have signed on,” she says.

Asked if the agreement will apply to the Fortune Minerals coal mine, she said, “Of course it will.”

In the meantime, the current system of environmental assessment for the province is a sales job, says Richard Overstall.

“The approach of the companies is to sell the project to the public. They are salesmen. They should be diplomats, they should be negotiating to find out what the concerns are, adjusting the project to fit those. Rather they are selling it. The environmental assessment process is not designed as a consultation.”

Overstall stresses the importance of the concept of social licence.

“For a project like Northern Gateway or one of the LNG projects, you need permits, licenses, and certificates from government. But along with those, you need social license. That has been well demonstrated with Enbridge, and that is still being played out.”