The B.C. Environment Ministry began collecting soil and water samples this week to test how much more industry it can permit in Kitimat, even as the government pursues a series of massive gas-fired plants in the community.
The province hopes to see three liquefied natural gas operations built on the shores of Kitimat, which is also the proposed marine terminal for the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipeline.
B.C. Hydro has tentative plans for a large gas-turbine-powered electrical generation facility in the region.
Energy Minister Bill Bennett says his government hasn't made a final decision on how any LNG plants will be powered. But it has tentatively given a green light to gas-fired generation to meet the industry's substantial demand for energy.
"It reflects the provincial government's decision to make natural gas available to this industry to drive their compressors," Mr. Bennett said in an interview Wednesday. "It's a decision made because the belief in government was that if we didn't…we wouldn't get the investment."
In addition to the expectation that LNG proponents will meet 90 per cent of their energy needs with natural gas, B.C. Hydro is considering a gas-fired plant to help meet the ancillary requirements for LNG – the 10 per cent of operations that are not directly used to transform natural gas to liquid form.
What is not clear, however, is what the province will do if its study, due to be completed in the spring of 2014, concludes that the proposed projects exceed the capacity of what the region's environment can sustain.
The amount of pollution already in the Kitimat airshed is already being challenged.
Last April, the province granted the town's Rio Tinto Alcan smelter a permit to increase its sulphur dioxide emissions.
That permit is being fought by a group of individuals and organizations in the region.
Chris Tollefson, a lawyer from the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre, is co-counsel for the opponents.
He welcomed the government's decision to look at air quality, but said it should have waited for the results before granting the aluminum smelter the right to increase emissions.
"The scientists who have studied this region consider it to be one of the most constrained airsheds in the world because of the climate, the geography and the burgeoning industrial activity," he said in an interview. While Kitimat is poised to become a major energy export hub, he said people in the community are already concerned about the existing pollution levels.
The provincial government has been aggressively pursuing investors to launch an LNG industry that is centred on Kitimat and Prince Rupert. Premier Christy Clark is heading to Asia next month to work toward purchase agreements, while legislative drafting teams are consumed with drawing up a tax regime for the industry.
But critics say B.C. cannot claim to be building the cleanest LNG industry in the world – the Clark government's commitment – so long as the facilities are burning non-renewable fossil fuels to make their product. A recent study by Clean Energy Canada found that each tonne of LNG produced in Canada could produce roughly three times the amount of carbon dioxide compared with some plants in Norway and Australia.
Mr. Bennett said there is little expectation that the industry in B.C. could be built using clean, renewable electric-drive technology. But he said he would like to see B.C. Hydro to do more for the clean-energy sector.
Hydro will file its integrated resource plan – the Crown corporation's long-term energy strategy – at the end of the month. "We don't need a lot of new electricity but we want to nurture the clean energy industry," Mr. Bennett said. "I would like to to see the [Integrated Resource Plan] reflect a commitment to a clean energy strategy going forward."