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Douglas Channel, the epicentre of the B.C.’s proposed LNG sector, is shown in an aerial view near Kitimat.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The B.C. government is starting to look at the impact on air quality that a liquefied natural gas industry would have in Kitimat, the epicentre of the province's proposed LNG sector.

The $650,000 study, which will not be complete until the spring of 2014, is being launched nearly two years after concerns were raised about the threat of industrial pollution posed by LNG in Kitimat. The announcement was made the same day that Premier Christy Clark was in Washington, D.C., where she is seeking to market B.C.-produced LNG as a clean energy.

The community of Kitimat, already home to an aluminum smelter, is poised to become a major energy gateway: Proposals are in the works – and in some cases construction has begun – for three LNG plants, marine terminals for two or more pipelines, and an oil refinery. Just the oil tanker traffic putting in at Kitimat if the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, about 220 ships per year, would have a significant impact on the air quality.

But the province has little idea what the cumulative result of all this industry packed into Kitimat's airshed will be. Unlike many communities in B.C., there is no air quality management plan. Until now, the province has maintained that any such studies would only be needed after projects are approved.

Adrian Dix, Leader of the opposition NDP, said the delay in launching this study undermines the Premier's efforts to brand B.C. LNG as a "clean" energy source.

"LNG is a great opportunity for B.C. but it requires us to do the work," he said in an interview. "I know the Premier likes the slogans and the advertising, but it's hard to understand why this work wasn't done."

On Thursday, the government announced it is issuing a request for proposals to conduct the study, which would "inform regulatory and policy development for future industrial activity in the Kitimat area." The objective of the study is to "ensure the potential impacts from industrial air emissions are clearly understood prior to new projects being approved and in operation."

That's a departure from the government's previous policy. After the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings revealed in 2011 some disturbing modelling about air quality, Terry Lake, the minister of environment of the day, dismissed calls for a Kitimat airshed study, saying there was no point because no projects had been formally approved.

The study will look at the cumulative emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide from the existing aluminum smelter, as well as the proposed LNG terminals, oil refinery and crude-oil export facility. It will also model what would happen if the industrial energy demand is met with gas-turbine-powered electrical generation facilities.

It is still unclear how any LNG plants would be powered. Creating LNG is an energy-intensive process, and B.C. Hydro doesn't have enough hydroelectricity to supply three facilities.

Merran Smith, director of Clean Energy Canada, said the outcome of the study is easy to predict: "We know there are going to be air pollution issues related to burning gas to power the compression for LNG – pollution that causes acid rain, smog and health problems," she said. "We shouldn't be burning gas in this airshed, we could be using clean renewable electricity in this industry. We need to use the least-polluting technology to power this new industry."

If natural gas is used either for direct-drive or combined-cycle electricity generation to produce the energy required for the proposed Shell LNG facility at Kitimat, approximately 300 million cubic feet of natural gas would be burned. The proposed Chevron Apache LNG facility could burn approximately 140 million cubic feet of natural gas.

On an average winter's day, the total amount of natural gas burned across the province is about 600 million cubic feet.