A federal environmental review of a B.C. liquefied natural gas project will likely stretch into the fall, months after the provincial legislature's expected ratification this week of an LNG bill.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) is focusing its attention on a suspension bridge and trestle proposed by Pacific NorthWest LNG, a consortium led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas.
Don't expect federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq to render any ruling on the controversial Pacific NorthWest LNG file during an election campaign, said Matthew Keen, an energy regulatory lawyer at Bull Housser in Vancouver.
"During the election, at law she is a cabinet minister," Mr. Keen said, but he noted that in practice, ministers make routine decisions and steer clear of controversial ones during election periods.
Pacific NorthWest LNG wants to build its B.C. export terminal on Lelu Island. The consortium envisages constructing the 1.6-kilometre-long suspension bridge to carry a pipeline beginning on Lelu Island and extending over the northwest flank of Flora Bank, an area that contains eelgrass used by juvenile salmon.
That bridge would connect with a 1.1-km-long, trestle-supported jetty that would start on the edge of Flora Bank and stretch to a marine terminal for ocean-going LNG tankers.
In May, members of the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation overwhelmingly rejected a $1-billion cash offer over 40 years from Pacific NorthWest LNG, declining to give aboriginal consent to the project in their traditional territory near Prince Rupert.
A study commissioned by the 3,600-member Lax Kw'alaams band warns that the trestle would disrupt a complex system that effectively holds Flora Bank in place, putting juvenile salmon at risk in the Skeena River estuary.
Last month, the Petronas-led group granted its conditional approval for the project, subject to getting the green light from the federal regulator and the B.C. Legislature's ratification of a development agreement between the provincial government and Pacific NorthWest LNG.
The B.C. Liberals are widely expected to ratify the 25-year pact by the end of this week with their majority, pushing through the LNG bill over the objections of the Opposition NDP. That would leave federal environmental clearance as the remaining obstacle for the energy consortium.
CEAA started its review into Pacific NorthWest LNG in April, 2013. Since then, there have been five pauses to what industry observers originally thought might be a process that would take two years at most. The latest delay arose when the federal regulator temporarily halted its review on June 2 – day 263 of the 365-day process. It is unclear when the regulatory clock will restart, but industry observers say any final approval by CEAA appears destined for weeks after the federal election to be held Oct. 19.
CEAA is awaiting more information from Pacific NorthWest LNG on evaluating the project's impact on salmon, in consultation with Tsimshian First Nations. Earlier this month, the Metlakatla, Kitselas, Gitxaala, Kitsumkalum and Gitga'at agreed to form the Tsimshian Environmental Stewardship Authority to assess the ecological impact of LNG export proposals near Prince Rupert. The Lax Kw'alaams are not part of that authority, though they have been invited to join.
Pacific NorthWest LNG estimates that $36-billion will need to be spent in order to achieve planned exports to Asia in 2019. The huge budget includes $6.7-billion in pipeline projects and $11.4-billion for the export plant at Lelu Island. The overall figure also factors in Petronas's $5.2-billion acquisition of Progress Energy Canada in 2012, and accounts for at least $12-billion related to drilling and natural gas production in northeastern B.C.
The suspension bridge and jetty could cost at least $1-billion, industry experts say. Pacific NorthWest LNG argues that its proposal will protect Flora Bank, but Fisheries and Oceans Canada has expressed concerns about strong winds and high waves during extreme storms.