Federal scientists say a proposal to export liquefied natural gas from British Columbia poses a low risk to the environment, a crucial ruling that sides with Pacific NorthWest LNG's contention that its project won't ruin an ecologically sensitive site.
The consortium led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas wants to build an $11.4-billion terminal on Lelu Island, which is located next to Flora Bank – a sandy area with eelgrass that nurtures juvenile salmon.
Pacific NorthWest has devised plans to construct a suspension bridge and pier that would carry a pipeline from Lelu Island to a dock for loading tankers, which would deliver the fuel to Asia.
"The effects of the marine structure on fish and fish habitat have been categorized as having a low potential of resulting in significant adverse effects," Fisheries and Oceans Canada said in a letter last week to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA).
The agency is expected to render a final decision by the spring on the controversial project. Its review started in April, 2013, but encountered a series of delays as the regulator asked the consortium for more information.
The conditional support from federal scientists bodes well for Pacific NorthWest, which has been facing opposition from environmentalists and the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, commonly referred to as DFO because it was formerly called the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, outlines recommendations to reduce the risk of damaging Flora Bank. Those include monitoring eelgrass beds to ensure the area remains stable and revising construction methods for the bridge and pier because porpoises are sensitive to underwater noise.
The federal scientists conclude that Pacific NorthWest's plans to protect Flora Bank are reasonable, as long as the venture's backers introduce a long-term monitoring program, implement measures to mitigate harm to fish habitat and adhere to a series of other recommendations to protect the Skeena River estuary.
"DFO would like to acknowledge the effort and commitment of the proponent to undertake a robust and science-based 3D modelling exercise to assist in predicting effects to habitat in and around the project, including Flora Bank," DFO said in its letter.
Natural Resources Canada agreed with DFO, in a letter last week to the CEAA, that the consortium's scientific studies into Flora Bank's sediment patterns have been rigorous, adding that it "has confidence in the proponent's conclusions."
The federal department said in a separate document that the impact of the proposed trestle-supported pier and dock will be "localized, resulting in a low risk to commercial, recreation and aboriginal fisheries."
The Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition and other environmental groups have raised concerns about the risk to fish habitat on Flora Bank.
Greg Horne, energy co-ordinator with Skeena Watershed, said Sunday that the federal findings "ignore the peer-reviewed published science conducted by the Lax Kw'alaams science team."
The analysis by federal scientists unfairly favours Pacific NorthWest and is disrespectful to the Lax Kw'alaams, said Mr. Horne, who expects a court challenge if the project is approved by the CEAA.
The Tsimshian Environmental Stewardship Authority, formed in July by the Metlakatla First Nation and four other aboriginal groups, believes there could be an acceptable way to export LNG from Lelu Island.
But members of the Lax Kw'alaams overwhelmingly turned down Pacific NorthWest's attempts last year to secure aboriginal consent for the project. Some members who are opposed to the venture set up a protest camp in August on Lelu Island.
Pacific NorthWest's proposal is considered by industry analysts to be the front-runner among 20 plans to export LNG from British Columbia.