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Woodfibre LNG is proposing to allow seals and sea lions to get within 125 metres of its industrial site before triggering a temporary halt to construction. Woodfibre’s site is located near Squamish, B.C., 65 kilometres north of Vancouver.John Lehmann/Handout

Woodfibre LNG has sparked a fight with environmentalists over whether the B.C. energy project’s noise strategy will be sufficient to protect seals and sea lions.

Activists warn that the underwater sounds emanating from pile driving during construction at the industrial site near Squamish would be akin to pinnipeds such as seals and sea lions hearing repeated shotgun blasts.

Woodfibre, majority owned by Indonesian businessman Sukanto Tanoto, is hoping to begin construction in September in its quest to become the second project in B.C. to export liquefied natural gas aboard ocean-bound tankers to Asia.

The company believes reducing the buffer zone for pinnipeds would help control expenses and still protect the animals, while bolstering the economic feasibility of constructing the much-delayed project – whose cost estimates have skyrocketed.

Marine mammal observers will be hired to detect pinnipeds within 125 metres of the industrial site. Woodfibre would need to follow procedures and order a temporary halt to construction whenever pinnipeds are spotted in waters within the proposed “exclusion zone” at the site.

But B.C. and federal regulators originally approved Woodfibre’s noise strategy to establish a much-wider exclusion zone in waters near the company’s property, with procedures to stop construction whenever any marine mammals would enter an area within 7.3 kilometres of the site on the West Coast.

Critics of Woodfibre say it’s important to stick with the original buffer zone to ensure relative peace and quiet for maintaining the health of pinnipeds. Plans for implementing the smaller buffer of 125 metres for pinnipeds are ill-advised because loud underwater noise, emanating from intermittent pile driving for six months of the four-year construction period, would harm such marine mammals navigating so close to the shores of the industrial site, according to environmentalists.

“Human-caused underwater noise can reduce marine mammals’ ability to communicate, find food, escape predators, and survive, and can cause injury or permanent hearing loss,” said My Sea to Sky, a climate activist group, in a new document filed last week with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.

Woodfibre is emphasizing that it has already agreed to ensure a safe distance at 7.3 kilometres for cetaceans such as orcas and dolphins, and its proposed reduction to the exclusion zone pertains only to pinnipeds.

In a 72-page regulatory filing last year, Woodfibre said pinnipeds and cetaceans “have distinct biological, distributional and behavioural differences that merit separate, monitoring boundary conditions.” And in a recent statement, the company said it will be taking into account both decibel levels and exclusion zones, with no diminishing of its responsibility to protect marine mammals.

My Sea to Sky, however, is urging federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to intervene and direct the federal agency to maintain the previously agreed-upon exclusion zone of 7.3 kilometres for both pinnipeds and cetaceans.

“In order to reduce potential conflict of interest, require that a trained marine mammal observer be brought in from an external agency, not as an employee of Woodfibre LNG,” said the My Sea to Sky document signed by executive director Tracey Saxby, research director Eoin Finn and environmental scientist Rhiannon Fox.

During a time of climate crisis, “building a facility that will lock in substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, both in B.C. and at the point of fuel usage, is inexcusable,” they told Mr. Guilbeault.

The federal regulator said Woodfibre has stated that pinnipeds are curious and gregarious, and with so many of them nestled around Howe Sound, there would be too many temporary construction shutdowns required.

“This would make construction neither technically nor economically feasible,” the federal agency said in a preliminary report dated Nov. 17. The regulator concluded there would be no significant adverse impacts on pinnipeds even if the safety buffer were to be reduced to 125 metres.

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Members of various groups strongly disagree with that preliminary finding. They have filed their concerns with the federal agency over the proposed reduction to the exclusion zone, including members of the Wilderness Committee,, Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative, District of Squamish, Sunshine Coast Conservation Association and Concerned Citizens Bowen.

“It is not the Impact Assessment Agency’s mandate to ensure a project’s economic viability at the expense of the environment,” Peter McCartney, a climate campaigner at the Wilderness Committee, said in a submission last month to the federal agency.

Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. acquired a 30-per-cent stake last year in Woodfibre, while the remaining 70 per cent is held by Pacific Energy Corp. Ltd. The latter is part of privately owned Singapore-based RGE Pte. Ltd., which is controlled by Mr. Tanoto.

In 2016, Woodfibre had cost estimates of $1.6-billion for its Squamish-area terminal and $520-million for the associated pipeline to operated by FortisBC. Last year, Enbridge announced total estimated costs soared to US$5.1-billion.

Mr. McCartney said Woodfibre is proposing a reduction of 98 per cent in the exclusion zone for pinnipeds, representing a significant rollback of protection for the creatures near the industrial site, which is located on the Squamish Nation’s traditional territory. Howe Sound is a natural treasure and great care must be taken to protect the area’s fragile marine environment, he said.

Kiki Wood, senior oil and gas campaigner with, says the natural habitat for sea lions is the water.

“They are not land mammals, so just because they can leave the water doesn’t mean that it’s advantageous for them to do so,” Ms. Wood said in an interview.

Woodfibre obtained key regulatory approvals in 2015 and 2016. The company is seeking to export 2.1 million tonnes a year of LNG, starting in 2027, from the industrial site near Squamish, 65 kilometres north of Vancouver.

LNG Canada, the only such export terminal under construction in the country, is striving to begin shipping 14 million tonnes a year of the fuel overseas from Kitimat starting in 2025.

The B.C. Environmental Assessment Office is the lead regulator in the collaborative review process with the federal agency and the Squamish Nation. The latter’s spokesperson, Wilson Williams, said the coming decision about the exclusion zone rests with the federal agency.

Large modules would need to be assembled onshore for Woodfibre’s liquefaction plant, which would run on hydroelectricity to reduce GHG emissions. Plans also call for floating LNG storage tanks to be in place in the waters of Howe Sound.

“While Woodfibre LNG’s use of low-GHG electricity may serve as a useful talking point for marketing and public relations, in reality the project is likely to detract from B.C.’s climate goals,” said Clark Williams-Derry, a Seattle-based analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, in a report last week.

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