Scale and speed of industrial development in northwest B.C. undermines environmental assessment

The rush to develop LNG has resulted in multiple proposals for pipelines to transport gas from the northeastern B.C. to the coast. (Map courtesy of Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, updated November 30, 2013.)

A juggernaut of industrial development in northwestern BC is overwhelming environmental groups, First Nations, and other citizens trying to keep up with environmental assessments.  There was a time when they could concentrate of one or two projects without allowing several others to slip past them unnoticed. Not any more.

Shannon McPhail and her colleagues at the Skeena Watershed Protection Coalition worked hard for several years supporting the Tahltan Nation’s fight against Shell Canada’s proposed shale gas project in the Sacred Headwaters. In 2012, Shell abandoned the project, with compensation from the provincial government.

McPhail says she focussed entirely on Shell, to the exclusion of other environmental issues, for many months. “We put blinders on, kept our heads down. That was a strategic decision and we ignored everything else.”

But after the victory she got a shock when she raised her head and took a look around.

She saw hundreds of billions of dollars worth of liquid natural gas (LNG) plants, natural gas pipelines, mines, run-of-river hydro, port upgrades, and industry upgrades, all in different stages of proposal, investment, acceptance and construction.

“We were completely overwhelmed because we were getting hundreds of referrals,” McPhail says. “We thought, wow, there is so much going on and it is all happening so fast, we don’t feel like anybody has a handle on it.”

 Richard Overstall, a Smithers lawyer specializing in natural resource and aboriginal issues, says there is no way the public can keep up.

 “I just opened up The Interior News yesterday and there is yet another open house,” he says, “a half page advertisement for an open house on another pipeline project. This happens pretty much weekly, sometimes two or three open houses, put on by the companies. Sometimes the same company is proposing two or three pipelines.

 “There are people, corporations, and government departments rushing for something they are not sure is there,” Overstall says. “It is more of a holy grail than anything thought out or substantive. And when they get caught up in that, like in the Klondike gold rush, all rational thinking goes out the window. We have got 12 or 13 gas pipeline proposals going to the coast, and I have characterized that as a plate of spaghetti, all these coloured routes going all over the place.

The avalanche of projects is a problem for the Tahltan Central Council as well. Tahltan territory encompasses about 93,500 square kilometers in the vicinity of the Stikine River and its tributaries in northwestern B.C.

“We are inundated with exploration permits coming in,” says council president Annita McPhee, “and they often give you a limited deadline to respond so by the time you respond, sometimes it is too late. Even if you do respond, they ignore our comments.”

One of the most troubling projects for the Tahltan is Fortune Minerals’ proposed open pit coal mine at Mount Klappan in the area of the Sacred Headwaters. The Tahltan vehemently oppose the project but the provincial government has permitted exploration. The project is in the pre-application stage in the province’s environmental review process.

“They had a permit to do their exploration despite massive concerns from our people and the public,” says McPhee, “and despite resistance by our people to protect the land, but it still went through.”

Another vast investment of time and energy by many First Nations and community groups was the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline hearings, which may have allowed other projects to proceed virtually unnoticed.

Most of the proposed mines, LNG plants, LNG pipelines, and hydro projects are subject to the provincial environmental assessment process, which is supposed to include public input. But it’s a mammoth job for a community group with limited funding to prepare for one assessment, much less dozens of them.

The complexity of many of the proposals is also daunting, like the Pacific Northwest LNG plant proposed for Lelu Island in the Skeena estuary near Prince Rupert.

Luanne Roth of the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Society in Prince Rupert is spending most of her time on it these days. She says the group has had to partially postpone its attempts to keep oil tankers off the coast in order to respond to the two Pacific Northwest LNG environmental assessments, both in process now, one for the gas plant and another for the pipeline that will feed it.

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