Canada's environmental regulator has resumed its review of plans devised by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas to export liquefied natural gas from northern British Columbia, clearing the way for the federal cabinet to rule this fall on the controversial project.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) had suspended its review on March 18, asking Pacific NorthWest LNG to submit more information about its proposal to build an $11.4-billion terminal on Lelu Island in the port of Prince Rupert.
On Monday, the federal agency said the Petronas-led group recently filed new documents that satisfy the March request for greater detail about construction plans.
The submissions include a 343-page study on fish habitat and a 271-page report on issues such as a proposed suspension bridge and trestle-supported pier from Lelu Island to a deep-berth loading dock for LNG carriers in Chatham Sound.
Pacific NorthWest LNG is vowing that it will take appropriate measures to prevent damage to juvenile salmon habitat in a sandbar called Flora Bank, located next to Lelu Island in the Skeena River estuary.
"Taking into account the proposed technically and economically feasible mitigation measures, construction in the marine environment is unlikely to result in significant adverse effects on fish, fish habitat and marine mammals," Pacific NorthWest LNG concludes in the 271-page document.
Petronas owns 62 per cent of Pacific NorthWest LNG. The Malaysian energy giant's partners are from Japan, China, India and Brunei.
The new filings allowed CEAA to restart the regulatory clock in the lengthy assessment process, which began in April 2013. At the request of the regulatory agency in March, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna granted an extra three months for the review. Barring any further delays, the federal Liberal cabinet is expected to issue its ruling in late September or early October.
In its draft report in February, the regulator said the project would likely harm harbour porpoises and contribute to climate change, but the export terminal could be built and operated without causing major ecological damage to Flora Bank. The assessment agency will produce a final report, giving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers time to digest the findings before they render a decision.
Spencer Sproule, Pacific NorthWest LNG's senior adviser of corporate affairs, said Monday that the group has conducted the most comprehensive fish study ever in the region.
"Over 100,000 person-hours have been dedicated to collecting field samples and data," he said. "Pacific NorthWest LNG would like to thank Tsimshian First Nations and local stakeholders for their rigorous and science-based approach to our environmental assessment. We look forward to continuing our relationship with Tsimshian First Nations as it relates to long-term monitoring and environmental stewardship."
Pacific NorthWest LNG said in its latest regulatory filings that it has been consulting with four of five Tsimshian First Nations – the Metlakatla, Gitxaala, Kitselas and Kitsumkalum.
Flora Bank and Lelu Island, however, are part of the traditional territory of the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams.
Donnie Wesley, a Lax Kw'alaams hereditary tribal chief who started a protest camp last August on Lelu Island, has received support from environmental groups such as SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. Mr. Wesley and his supporters say scientific research commissioned by the Lax Kw'alaams indicate that Flora Bank will be placed at risk of vanishing if the Lelu Island terminal is built.
The trestle-supported pier in particular would threaten to disrupt a complex system that effectively holds Flora Bank in place, according to environmentalists.
Pacific NorthWest LNG cautions in a 23-page commentary to the assessment agency that workers would require more time during the fall and winter to clear trees on Lelu Island while still being mindful of protecting little brown bats, though researchers say they have not located any critical roosting habitats of the bats.