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There is a pipeline plan in British Columbia that Premier Christy Clark likes very much.

Ms. Clark has been scrupulously non-committal on the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline. The Harper government wants it built so badly it launched a campaign this week attacking opponents as radicals and puppets of foreign interests. Call that one the Prime Minister's pipeline.

The Premier's pipeline is the $1-billion Pacific Trails project, and construction is expected to begin this summer.

Both projects are bound for the port of Kitimat – the Gateway to be loaded with crude oil from Alberta; the Pacific Trails carrying natural gas from northeast B.C.

The Gateway proposal has generated an incendiary debate, with concerns about potential oil spill disasters – whether from leaky pipes or from the coastal tanker traffic – running smack up against a nationalist fervor to free Canada's resource industries from unfavourable dependence on the U.S. market.

Pacific Trails, by comparison, has sailed through the approval process. Opposition New Democrats support the project. It has broad first nations buy-in, and the Clark government sees it as the key to developing a liquefied natural gas industry. It is a fossil fuel business that, relative to the oil sands, comes with a green seal of approval.

But both developments bring environmental impacts to Kitimat's doorstep, and the province has little idea what the cumulative result of all this industry packed into the community will be.

There are 13 regions in B.C. with an air quality management plan, but none for Kitimat which, despite the massive aluminum smelter perched on a hill to the west of town, is regarded by the province as having excellent air quality.

Between the Premier's ambitions and those of the Prime Minister, that could change. The pipelines are meant to end at Kitimat's port. The oil would be pumped into supertankers. Natural gas will be processed into LNG before moving on to the busy tanker port for transport.

B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake is expecting to have on his desk this spring a technical review of the Gateway project. It's not meant for public consumption, but it will guide his government in forming an opinion on the oil pipeline that would cross the province, and the oil tankers that would traverse the treacherous B.C. coastline.

Even with that information, the B.C. government probably won't come out clearly for or against the Gateway proposal. To say "no" would infuriate the conservative wing of the B.C. Liberal Party, which is being assiduously courted by the new B.C. Conservative Party. A "yes" would drive the influential green vote into the arms of the opposition New Democrats.

"It may sound like waffling," Mr. Lake said in an interview. "But we want to listen to all of that information so that we understand all the possible ramifications and then decide how we react."

B.C. has forfeited its opportunity to say no to Gateway formally, having signed a pact years ago giving the federal government control over projects that cross provincial borders.

So the only aspect of development it can control is the LNG side. And there is growing uncertainty about what that will look like.

The province is expected to unwrap its natural gas strategy later this month. The Premier wants the jobs associated with an LNG industry, but there are complicating factors. Creating LNG is an energy-intensive process, and BC Hydro doesn't have enough clean, green hydroelectricity for the three facilities Ms. Clark wants to see there. That means some will likely be burning natural gas to provide their own energy.

If it turns out all this industrial development can't safely be sustained by Kitimat's air shed, will the province have to scale back its own objectives? Mr. Lake said there is no point studying the issue now, since the Gateway hasn't been approved yet and the extent of the LNG industry is still uncertain.

"We can say 'these are the things we would like to see happen,' but we can't know for sure all of those things will happen, or can be done in a way that makes sense from an environmental point of view," Mr. Lake said. "We're not saying these will happen come hell or high water."


The B.C. government has not studied what will happen to the air if Kitimat becomes the epicentre of a new liquefied natural gas industry plus the marine terminal for the Gateway oil pipeline. But Enbridge, the pipeline proponent, has done some modelling.

The Kitimat Terminal "has the potential to measurably affect air quality … during the construction and operations phases," states a study filed by Enbridge as part of its massive application to the National Energy Board.

Each year, approximately 220 tankers are expected to call at the marine terminal. Three tugs would assist each tanker in the three-hour process of berthing. After that, each tanker would be on standby for approximately 16 hours, all the while running steam and auxiliary boilers to keep the bunker oil hot and pumps running, while they load and unload. Add just one LNG plant and, at maximum levels, the result would exceed air-quality objectives.

Karen Campbell, a lawyer at Ecojustice, said the report underscores the need for the province to look at air quality before signing off on any more industrial development in Kitimat.

"At some point in time you are going to have some serious issues with the air quality in that air shed," Ms. Campbell said. "Some sort of advance planning to deal with the proliferation of industry would be a good idea."

Justine Hunter