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Doug Slater, FortisBC vice-president of external and Indigenous relations, poses for a photograph at the company's Tilbury LNG facility in Delta, B.C., on Dec. 19, 2022.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

An industrial site in British Columbia has emerged as a battleground over whether governments that have pledged to fight climate change should approve new projects to export liquefied natural gas.

The Tilbury Pacific Marine Jetty project is seeking permission to build a new two-berth dock for Tilbury Island in the Vancouver suburb of Delta.

Environmental groups say pending decisions by cabinet ministers on the Delta jetty proposal will be an important indicator of whether there is a political appetite in Canada for exporting LNG, given the B.C. and federal governments’ commitments to net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

Supporters of exports say Canada is positioned to help bolster global supplies of the fuel, especially from the West Coast to Asia, noting that worldwide demand for LNG surged after Russia invaded Ukraine last February.

B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman, B.C. Transportation Minister Rob Fleming and their cabinet colleagues are scheduled to first rule on the regulatory application to build the jetty facilities. The jetty proposal also requires approval from federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

The proposal for the dock, also known as a jetty, has undergone a review by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office in collaboration with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.

The backers of the proposal are Fortis LNG Jetty LP, which is an affiliate of Fortis Inc. FTS-T, and Seaspan ULC.

FortisBC, a subsidiary of Fortis Inc., argues that LNG is cleaner than coal and crude oil. The company believes that exports from Canada of natural gas in liquid form would play an important role as a transition fuel.

“We can’t let perfect be the enemy of good as it relates to taking climate action,” said Doug Slater, FortisBC’s vice-president of external and Indigenous relations. FortisBC, the largest distributor of natural gas to homes in B.C., currently uses its Tilbury LNG plant mostly for domestic storage as a backup for peak demand on cold days and in case of fuel shortages.

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Environmental groups such as the Wilderness Committee and Stand.earth say LNG contributes to global emissions of greenhouse gases when the focus should be on renewable energy. “We’re looking at the prospect of more fracking in northeast B.C. and more natural gas production,” said Peter McCartney, a climate campaigner at the Wilderness Committee.

The Wilderness Committee and Stand.earth are urging climate activists to join their letter-writing campaigns in an effort to persuade the B.C. and federal governments to reject plans to build the Tilbury jetty.

One berth would be for marine refuelling, or bunkering, for barges that would sail down the south arm of the Fraser River to fill up LNG-powered ships arriving at the Port of Vancouver’s anchorages in the English Bay area. The other berth would be set aside for exports of LNG aboard vessels departing from the Delta site, which is located on the traditional territory of the Coast Salish nations.

Besides the jetty proposal, FortisBC is going through a separate regulatory process in hopes of obtaining approval to expand its Tilbury LNG plant. The site uses compressors powered by electric motors to help supercool natural gas into liquid form, and the expansion would also rely on electrification instead of gas-fired turbines.

If the jetty wins political approval, it would bolster FortisBC’s plans for adding export capacity for shipping LNG on ocean-bound tankers to Asia. FortisBC has budgeted to spend at least $3-billion for the expansion to add 2.5 million tonnes of annual LNG capacity by 2027 on Tilbury Island.

“Climate change is a problem and it won’t be doing anybody any good to be approving fossil fuel expansions,” said Eoin Finn, research director at climate activist group My Sea to Sky.

The LNG Canada project, currently under construction in Kitimat, B.C., would become the first Canadian export terminal for shipping the fuel in tankers when it opens in 2025. To feed that export terminal, TC Energy Corp. is building the contentious Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is designed to transport natural gas from northeast B.C. to Kitimat.

The co-owners of LNG Canada are considering a major expansion in Kitimat in what would be Phase 2, with the option to utilize gas-fired turbines initially for liquefaction and then subsequently switching over to electric power. “We recognize it will require the co-operation of both federal and provincial governments to help facilitate the power and transmission necessary to make this a viable option,” Teresa Waddington, the joint venture’s vice-president of corporate relations, said in a statement.

The Wilderness Committee counters that the B.C. government should take steps to block LNG Canada’s Phase 2. Aside from the potential expansions in Kitimat and at Tilbury Island, three other projects for exports using tankers remain active in British Columbia: Woodfibre LNG, Cedar LNG and Ksi Lisims LNG.

LNG Canada’s Phase 1 export capacity of 14 million tonnes a year will be at least five times higher than the planned exports from the expanded Tilbury LNG plant, which began as a small-scale operation in 1971. By 2027, Tilbury LNG’s production capacity would reach 3.4 million tonnes a year. That includes current production capacity of more than 250,000 tonnes a year and another 650,000 tonnes a year of capacity to be added by 2026 under a previously approved expansion.

My Sea to Sky estimates that 28 per cent of Tilbury Island’s additional annual capacity could go toward LNG marine bunkering and 72 per cent for exports, should FortisBC meet its goal to complete various construction projects in 2027.

While the Port of Vancouver views LNG refuelling as a significant improvement over traditional marine oil, the World Bank issued a report in 2021 that concluded the role of LNG as a marine fuel is likely to be limited in the shipping industry.

Last August, FortisBC signed an agreement that clears the way for the Musqueam Indian Band, one of the Coast Salish nations, to eventually become equity co-owners in the jetty and the Delta terminal.