In the next few weeks, the federal cabinet is expected to decide on the fate of the Petronas-backed Pacific NorthWest LNG proposal to develop a liquefied natural gas facility and export terminal near Prince Rupert, BC. One of the central issues in their deliberations will be the carbon pollution arising from the project. The BC government is advocating for the project to be approved as it is. Unfortunately, the province’s position ignores two major failings of the project — failings that will undermine Canada’s commitment to the Paris climate change agreement and set a terrible precedent for other liquefied natural gas proposals.
The first flaw is that the project is proposing to rely on wasteful technology to liquefy the gas, even though better alternatives exist today and are incorporated into the designs of a similar project just over 100 kilometres away. As proposed, Pacific NorthWest LNG will rely entirely on burning natural gas for the liquefaction process. The LNG Canada proposal (backed by Shell) is proposing to use a mix of natural gas and electricity — an alternative that could be 41 percent less polluting. That project is similar in size, has similar timelines and is located in nearby Kitimat.
There’s no excuse to allow Pacific NorthWest LNG to proceed with substandard technology. The site is a mere 10 kilometres from the electricity grid. According to BC Hydro’s resource options map, the site is surrounded by renewable energy opportunities.
The second failing is the lack of a plan to improve the project’s emissions performance over time. As proposed, the first phase of the project won’t see any emissions-reduction improvements in its 30-plus years of operation, and there’s no guarantee that the second phase will be any better than the first. In both cases, much better practices are possible. The first phase could rely increasingly on renewable electricity as it becomes available, and there’s enough time for the second phase to rely entirely on electricity in the same way that Woodfibre LNG, near Squamish, is proposing to do. There are legitimate reasons (a considerable amount of electricity infrastructure would need to be built) why that level of performance isn’t possible right now, but there’s no good reason to lock in the limitations of today until mid-century.
Given the scale of the project (the export terminal would cost $12 billion to build), the environmental implications of these failings are significant. As proposed, the facility could emit up to 4.9 million tonnes of carbon pollution per year. That’s equivalent to over 1 million cars on the road (and this doesn’t include the shale gas operations in northeastern BC that would feed the project). But if the first phase was built to the standard of LNG Canada and the second phase to the standard of Woodfibre LNG, the total emissions would be 2.3 million tonnes. That’s still a major increase in carbon pollution when we need their levels to drop, but it’s also materially better than what’s currently on the table.
How could these failures be allowed to happen? Part of the problem stems from two policies implemented by the BC government. In 2014, instead of mandating a high level of performance, the province’s carbon rules for LNG offered up several compliance loopholes that gave proponents options to pay for credits instead of actually limiting their pollution. Then, in 2015, the province made things worse by signing a long-term agreement with Petronas, which promises the Malaysian state-owned enterprise compensation if any future provincial government tightens those regulations.
The federal government shouldn’t be constrained by BC’s poor policy decisions, but to date the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) hasn’t shown any willingness to push back substantively on the project’s failings. It looks as if that task will fall to the federal cabinet as it makes its determination. (After the CEAA submits its final report, cabinet will decide whether the significant adverse environmental effects likely to arise from the project are warranted.)
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If cabinet doesn’t push back — through a rejection or an approval with appropriate conditions — and allows the project to proceed largely unchanged, the federal government will be sending all the wrong signals. It will be signalling to BC that it’s okay to miss legislated climate targets that are supposed to be part of a national climate plan. Other provinces will see the signal, as will the international community in the lead-up to the international climate change negotiations in Marrakesh this November. They’ll also be signalling to Petronas and other LNG proponents that Canada is fine with substandard technology that doesn’t improve over time.
If “Canada’s back” is going to be more than an empty slogan, it needs to be sure that all of the signals are the right ones. Thankfully, the federal government has the ability to ensure that it does, and hopefully will not allow BC’s and Petronas’ mistakes to be locked in for the next 30-plus years.
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