Pacific NorthWest LNG will submit new reports to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency by mid-May in an effort to address lingering concerns about its plans to export liquefied natural gas.
The consortium is seeking to push the project across the finish line after a series of delays that arose mostly because of requests from the agency for greater detail. The upcoming filings are significant because they are seen as the final chapters to Pacific NorthWest LNG's submissions aimed at winning regulatory approval.
The federal regulator sent a six-page letter on March 18 to Pacific NorthWest LNG, asking the consortium to file more information, such as the construction work schedule for a suspension bridge and pier in northwestern B.C. Those two structures spanning 2.7 kilometres would connect a dock in the ocean with the planned LNG terminal on Lelu Island.
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said last month that if the agency gives the go-ahead to the LNG project, she will ask the federal cabinet to begin its discussions on whether to approve the plans.
The regulator began its review in April, 2013, in what has turned out to be a lengthy examination of the $11.4-billion terminal proposal. Over the past three years, there have been six pauses in a process that industry officials initially believed would take two years at most.
"We're in the midst of responding to what we hope is the final information request," Pacific NorthWest LNG director Michael Culbert said in an interview. "Let the science answer the questions. We've gone through a rigorous environmental assessment process."
After the CEAA receives the new reports, it may take several weeks for the agency to decide whether the responses are adequate. By late June, the 90-day clock could start ticking – that's how much time the federal cabinet will have to render its ruling on whether to reject the LNG proposal or approve it with conditions, industry observers say.
If cabinet clears the way, that will allow Pacific NorthWest LNG to make its own final investment decision, potentially in September. Malaysia's state-owned Petronas leads the consortium. The other partners are from Japan, China, India and Brunei.
"We're advised by Minister McKenna that it will be no more than a 90-day decision period," Mr. Culbert said.
A March survey conducted by Abacus Data and commissioned by Pacific NorthWest LNG showed that of the 1,000 B.C. respondents, 63 per cent supported the project, 20 per cent opposed and 17 per cent were neutral.
But environmental groups and some aboriginal leaders have raised concerns about the risk to juvenile salmon habitat on Flora Bank, a sandy area located next to Lelu Island. The Petronas-led consortium believes that the bridge and pier – carrying a pipeline from Lelu Island to a proposed dock for LNG tankers on Agnew Bank – would protect salmon on Flora Bank as well as nearby harbour porpoises.
"We believe we can build it safely and co-exist with salmon and porpoises alike," said Mr. Culbert, who stepped down on Sunday as Pacific NorthWest LNG president to focus on his role as chief executive officer of Progress Energy Canada, a natural gas producer that was acquired by Petronas in 2012 for $5.2-billion.
Mr. Culbert, who remains a director of Pacific NorthWest LNG and Progress Energy, was appointed last week as country chairman in Canada for Petronas. The new Pacific NorthWest LNG president is Adnan Zainal Abidin, the vice-president of global LNG projects at Petronas.
Matt Horne, B.C. associate director at the Pembina Institute, a clean-energy think tank, said cabinet ministers will also have to take into account the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. "Where cabinet comes to a decision at the end of the day, I don't know. We're certainly advocating that they continue to take a strong look at the climate side and make sure that's front and centre in their decision," Mr. Horne said during a conference call Monday.
Supporters of the LNG sector say liquefied natural gas exported to Asia would replace coal or diesel abroad. But Mr. Horne countered that the world needs to produce less natural gas in order to reduce pollution and, in any event, each country is responsible for its own targets to fight climate change.
He said the Petronas-led venture would have high emissions of carbon dioxide, undermining British Columbia's targets for allowable GHG emissions within the province.
The consortium has estimated that direct greenhouse gas emissions will be 4.9 million tonnes a year of equivalent carbon dioxide.