Federal regulators are seeking assurances from Pacific NorthWest LNG that construction plans for a suspension bridge and pier won't wreck the B.C. habitat for marine mammals and fish.
Officials at the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) have requested a detailed construction work schedule for the bridge and pier, which are part of the project to export liquefied natural gas from Lelu Island.
At the request of the regulatory agency, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has granted an extra three months for the review. Malaysia's state-owned Petronas leads the consortium that is striving to launch LNG exports to Asia as early as 2020.
CEAA, which started its assessment in April, 2013, said it needs the three-month extension to deal with a flurry of new filings in recent weeks.
Pacific NorthWest LNG's submission on March 4 raised an array of questions that the agency wants answered, notably related to plans for constructing night and day in the waters near Lelu Island. The island, near Prince Rupert, is the site of the proposed $11.4-billion export terminal. Industry observers say the bridge and pier would cost at least another $1-billion.
A six-page letter sent by CEAA to Pacific NorthWest LNG asks the backers to outline their proposal to build the suspension bridge, which would start on Lelu Island and extend over the northwest side of Flora Bank. The bridge would connect with a trestle-supported jetty leading to a dock for LNG carriers.
The regulator has lingering concerns about the project's impact on juvenile salmon habitat on Flora Bank, a sandy area located next to Lelu Island.
In CEAA's draft report released in February, the agency concluded that Pacific NorthWest LNG's project would likely harm harbour porpoises and contribute to climate change, but the export terminal could be built and operated without causing major ecological damage to Flora Bank.
Pacific NorthWest LNG's submission cautions that some of the draft report's conditions might not be technically or economically feasible, prompting this response from CEAA on March 18: "There is uncertainty regarding the effects of light, noise and sediment erosion and disposition resulting from in-water construction to fish and fish habitat and marine mammals."
Pacific NorthWest LNG president Michael Culbert said the consortium filed its project description to CEAA in Feburary, 2013, and since then, there has been wide-ranging support from local governments and industry.
"Pacific NorthWest LNG will work to assess this latest information request and continue to work constructively with federal agencies through this rigorous process," Mr. Culbert said in a statement Sunday. "We would like to acknowledge the Tsimshian First Nations, who have worked productively to ensure the project realizes both environmental sustainability and generational economic opportunity for their people."
Groups such as the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition have warned that the project will have a devastating impact on Flora Bank.
Supporters and critics sent in their comments by the thousands during a 30-day public comment period that ended March 11. The three-month "extension will ensure all available and relevant information and science is considered, including over 34,000 comments recently received from the public to allow for informed decision-making," CEAA said in a statement.
Alex Ferguson, vice-president of policy at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the length of time Ottawa takes to issue a decision will partly hinge on Pacific NorthWest LNG's response time. "Part of it depends on how quickly the project proponent provides the clarity that has been requested," he said in an interview.
He noted Ms. McKenna's approval on Friday of a small-scale B.C. project near Squamish, Woodfibre LNG. "She was comfortable making the decision on that," said Mr. Ferguson, who added that "it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing" for the federal cabinet to rule on Pacific NorthWest LNG's fate.
Critics have warned about greenhouse gas emissions from the company's venture. Supporters say LNG exported to Asia would replace coal or diesel, though CEAA said that analysis on global climate change is outside its scope.
John Helin, mayor of the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, sent a letter on March 15 to the regulator to announce that the band council will support the LNG terminal subject to the creation of an environmental performance committee.