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The proposed site of the Woodfibre LNG plant near Squamish, B.C. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The proposed site of the Woodfibre LNG plant near Squamish, B.C. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Controversial Woodfibre LNG project wins ‘milestone’ federal approval Add to ...

The company behind a controversial liquefied natural gas project near Squamish, north of Vancouver, says federal environmental approval is a “milestone” that will bolster the prospects for completing the $1.6-billion plant, which would ship gas to markets in Asia.

But Friday’s ruling by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna left some critics dismayed, wondering what can be done to block the plan and suggesting federal support is at odds with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s frequent statements calling for action against climate change.

Byng Giraud, vice-president of corporate affairs for Woodfibre LNG Ltd. – which is privately owned by Singapore-based RGE Pte. Ltd. – said on Sunday that the project has passed provincial, First Nations and federal assessments, adding up to a strong case.

“People say, ‘We don’t trust their science.’ Well, we’ve gone to three different agencies,” he said. “We’ve gone above and beyond. It’s three decisions.”

The Squamish Nation previously issued an environmental certificate for the project after conducting its own review.

Mr. Giraud called Ms. McKenna’s ruling “a big milestone for us” that brings certainty to the plan to process natural gas – shipped by pipeline from Northern B.C. – into liquefied natural gas. But, he added, other permits must still be secured for the project, which the company hopes will be operational by about 2020.

Patricia Heintzman, mayor of the District of Squamish, said Sunday she was “not pleased” with federal government approval. In a vote last year, she said, her council decided that it could not support the project as it stood at that time.

“Should [the project] go ahead, we’re going to be vigilant about ensuring they are adhering to the highest of standards,” Ms. Heintzman said.

Among the minister’s conditions for approval, LNG vessels must respect speed profiles and minimize greenhouse gas emissions by using hydroelectricity instead of natural gas to power the transition of natural gas into liquefied natural gas.

Eoin Finn, research director for the My Sea to Sky organization, said he was concerned about Ottawa’s approval but that there are few options for stopping the plant. “This makes it a very uphill battle to stop this,” he said.

He said the best way to block the project may be the “dismal” economics around LNG due to declining markets – though pinning opposition on that scenario leaves critics “helpless.” In addition to considering protests, detractors are contemplating legal action, since the project may be at odds with the Fisheries Act, Mr. Finn said.

“I would prefer, personally, not to indulge in anything illegal, but there are strong feelings about this in the communities up and down the [Howe] Sound.”

In an e-mail, Michael Smith, mayor of the District of West Vancouver, said he does not know what his council will do next. The district council previously passed a resolution opposing the project.

Tankers carrying Woodfibre LNG’s product would travel through Howe Sound, and Mr. Smith said the waterway needs to be protected as a recreation area for the growing population of Greater Vancouver.

“No one can guarantee our residents that there will not be a catastrophic incident either at the LNG terminal or on one of the tankers. Even though the risk might be small, it is not one that is worth taking given the potential damage,” he wrote. “This location makes no sense.”

In a statement on Sunday, Ms. McKenna’s office said the minister and the federal government are committed to ensuring that the energy sector remains a source of jobs, prosperity and opportunity amid a demand for sustainable practices.

The statement noted that, in January, Ottawa introduced interim principles to provide predictability to natural resources producers while the government modernizes the environmental assessment process.

“But natural resources are important to the Canadian economy. There are a number of projects undergoing environment assessments under the existing legislation, and it is not fair to any proponent to send them back to the starting point.”

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