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Scientists urge Catherine McKenna to reject Pacific NorthWest LNG report

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna speaks in the House of Commons during Question Period in Ottawa on March 7.


More than 130 scientists have signed a letter to federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, asking her to reject a "scientifically flawed" report into Pacific NorthWest LNG.

Last month, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) said in its draft report that a B.C. terminal for exporting liquefied natural gas could be built and operated without causing major ecological damage to Flora Bank, which contains juvenile salmon habitat. Flora Bank is a sandy area located next to Lelu Island, the proposed site for the $11.4-billion terminal.

"A worse location is unlikely to be found for PNW LNG with regards to potential risks to fish and fisheries," according to the letter sent by biologist Jonathan Moore and other scientists. They argue that the regulatory agency disregarded science that was not financed by Pacific NorthWest LNG.

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The letter has been sent to Ms. McKenna and copied to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and three other federal cabinet ministers.

"We urge you to reject the CEAA draft report," the letter from the coalition of scientists said. "The CEAA draft report for the Pacific NorthWest LNG project is a symbol of what is wrong with environmental decision-making in Canada. An obvious risk of a flawed assessment is that it will arrive at an incorrect conclusion."

Ms. McKenna is expected to make a decision on or around March 22, barring any further delays in the review process that began in April, 2013. Malaysia's state-owned Petronas leads the LNG consortium that is seeking to export the fuel to Asia as early as 2020.

"CEAA did not adequately consider decades of scientific research on salmon in the Skeena River estuary and instead relied on proponent-funded studies that were substantially more limited in scope and duration and that reached different conclusions compared to the larger body of available science," the letter said. Supporters of the letter include aquatic ecologist David Schindler, former federal fisheries biologist Otto Langer, geologist Patrick McLaren and oceanographer Barb Faggetter.

Environment Canada is not commenting on whether it will meet the March 22 regulatory deadline for making a decision on the LNG facility. In January, Ms. McKenna announced that the Liberal government would review how the project might affect greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs) from the production of natural gas needed to fill the pipeline. But she said the added hurdle would not delay the decision.

The draft report released on Feb. 10 warns that Pacific NorthWest LNG's project near Prince Rupert will likely harm harbour porpoises and contribute to climate change. Earlier this month, the proponent sent in more information to CEAA to address those concerns.

Starting Feb. 10, the regulatory agency asked for feedback from the public and aboriginal groups. The number of comments submitted has skyrocketed to more than 10,000 since then. The 30-day comment period ends on Friday.

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In a statement, CEAA defended its draft report: "The government of Canada is committed to conducting high-quality, thorough and science-based environmental assessments that are fair, transparent and that take into account the views of Canadians and indigenous peoples."

The regulator also said government scientists have taken a close look at the LNG terminal's impact on Flora Bank. "If the project is ultimately allowed to proceed to the permitting phase, mitigation measures to protect salmon habitat within Flora Bank and the Skeena River estuary, identified during the federal environmental assessment, would be developed into legally binding conditions."

CEAA's draft report included both its traditional assessment of the GHGs from the project itself and the department's evaluation of the upstream emissions. In both cases, the agency concluded the climate impact would be "high in magnitude, continuous, irreversible and global in extent." Pacific NorthWest LNG argues the Canadian climate impact would be greatly offset by the use of the natural gas to replace coal or diesel in Asia, but CEAA said that analysis is outside its scope.

On Tuesday, U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern praised Ms. McKenna's leadership at the recent Paris summit. But the minister now must decide whether to approve the Pacific NorthWest LNG facility that could be the third-largest source of GHGs in Canada's oil and gas industry.

Pacific NorthWest LNG president Michael Culbert said the consortium has enjoyed a constructive relationship with Ottawa. "We look forward to the conclusion of the public comment period of the draft report and, ultimately, a decision by the government of Canada on our project in due course," he said in a statement this week.

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