Four things that District of Squamish councillors are getting wrong about Woodfibre LNG

Pushed by anti-LNG pressure groups, District of Squamish councillors have decided to offer their own response to emissions reduction guidelines set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), urging the BC Environmental Assessment Office to refuse a five-year environmental certificate extension for the $1.6 billion Woodfibre LNG project. The councillors supporting this motion are getting a couple of things very wrong.

In a Committee of the Whole meeting earlier this week, four out of seven District councillors voted to submit the following recommendation to the EAO. It is being debated and voted on for a final time on Tuesday, May 19th.

Recommendation to the BC Environmental Assessment Office

Whereas the BC Environmental Assessment Office published a new Certificate Extension Policy on 22 April 2020 that requires any EA extension application to detail “new information that has come to light since the original EAC was granted that could change the conclusions reached in the EAO’s assessment of the project”; and

Whereas the International Panel on Climate Change published a Special Report in October 2018 that finds it necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and that doing so will require “rapid and far-reaching” changes in all aspects of society so that net human-caused emissions of CO2 fall by 45% of 2010 levels by 2030 and reach ‘net zero’ by 2050; and

Whereas the Province of BC has adopted the GHG Reduction Act and the CleanBC plan and commits B.C. by legislation to achieve GHG emissions reductions of 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050 (over a 2007 baseline); and

Whereas the District of Squamish declared a Climate Emergency on 2 July 2019 and established goals to reduce its current emissions of 97,000 CO2e/year in-line with the IPCC goals of 45% reduction by 2030 and net zero by 2050; and

Whereas the estimated GHG emissions of the Woodfibre LNG facility are estimated to be 129,400 tonnes CO2e/year based on their submission to the EAO and there are no current plans in place to mitigate or offset these emissions to achieve net zero.

Therefore be it resolved that the Council of the District of Squamish does not support an extension of the Environmental Certificate for Woodfibre LNG unless the extension includes a condition that Woodfibre LNG must meet the IPCC targets for its operation within the District of Squamish to reduce its GHG emissions by 45% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

And be it further resolved that this resolution be included in the District of Squamish’s feedback to the EAO as part of our response to Woodfibre LNG’s application for an extension to their EA certificate.

What are they missing?

1. For starters, Woodfibre LNG is a local project with national and global implications. Decisions about energy and climate policy involve many stakeholders and ultimately rest with higher levels of government. And Council’s proposed recommendation is a misguided, largely symbolic statement.

It moves the goalposts to an unrealistic target, fails to acknowledge the complex system of supply and demand in which the LNG export project is situated, and demands that a recommended criteria for government (net zero) be arbitrarily applied to a specific project that some councillors have already indicated they will find any excuse to oppose. 

The IPCC’s Special Report cited in the Council’s motion urges governments to pursue pathways to reduce carbon emissions – and that’s where the responsibility lies. As a UN organization, the IPCC publishes regular reports co-authored by leading scientists from around the world, intended to inform decision-making on emissions reduction, adaptation, and understanding the most up-to-date climate research. It is currently in its sixth assessment cycle, preparing for a report due in 2022.

Canada participates in the IPCC, and its reports have informed the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, which sets national targets for carbon emissions, which BC also participates in with its own ambitious targets. Net zero is not a credible expectation for any single project, especially not for an energy export project that seeks to displace carbon emissions in other jurisdiction – rather, it is an approach to emissions reduction that governments can choose to advance in a balanced way.

Moreover, the language of the recommendation suggests that it is correct to compare the emissions of a major industrial project, which will sell LNG produced with the cleanest standards in the world, with the community emissions of a municipality with 20,000 residents. As the District's own Community Climate Action Plan acknowledges, the largest sources of emissions in the District are the people and businesses (scope 3), representing over a quarter of a million tons of CO2e/year - which puts the projected annual emissions of Woodfibre LNG (about 150,000 tons) in context. 

By the way, over a quarter of the District's emissions result from - wait for it - natural gas consumption. 

Municipalities absolutely have a role in environmental management and there’s a lot that they can do, in their own domain, to make meaningful improvements. The District has been at the forefront of local, achievable goals, like targeting plastics pollution and pursuing long-term solutions to transportation. For the last couple of years, the District of Squamish has been recognized as a fully carbon-neutral local government under BC's Climate Action Charter precisely because it has focused on its own areas of jurisdiction.

Misinterpreting the role of various policy instruments doesn’t help. And time spent on scope creep, when there is an entire regulatory process already in place (the most robust in the world), distracts from the vital role that local governments are playing to protect the environment. 

2. The anti-LNG pressure groups make a critical error: assuming that opposing Canadian natural gas projects will meaningfully address global demand for energy. Rather than reducing global emissions, pressure groups effectively seek to cut Canada out of energy export so that more carbon-intensive jurisdictions, with lower overall environmental standards, can take over that demand for energy products like oil and natural gas.

The group pressuring District councillors to make this move, My Sea to Sky, employs dubious arguments about global emissions that stem from analysis of LNG as a global industry that is both inconclusive and fails to consider the BC context or the project itself.

The climate action value of displacing coal as an energy source, one of the most often touted benefits of natural gas, largely depends on production methods. Full-cycle emissions analysis enables us to see how Woodfibre, as a project that uses electricity to produce liquefied natural gas, can positively contribute to global emissions reduction efforts.

“This is not a zero sum game and I understand that. ... I believe that we can meet the objectives we have set for ourselves over the next 12, then 23 years and we will be working in concert with other levels of government and Indigenous communities to hit those targets.”

- John Horgan in 2018 following the approval of another promising project in BC, LNG Canada.

It appears that the goal of knocking out the cleanest LNG export facility in the world - and that's what Woodfibre LNG would be - represents more of a vanity project than a genuine effort to change emissions pathways for the better.

Conversations about Canada’s and BC’s energy and climate plans are best left with those governments which are well-equipped to respond to guidance from the IPCC, work with global partners to find solutions that address both climate concerns and energy demand, and make decisions that represent the interests of all citizens.

3. The project is jointly regulated by three governments: British Columbia, Canada, and the Squamish Nation. If passed, this motion would suggest that District councillors believe they have a better grasp of the issues than the three regulators.

The BC Government and federal government have found the project – and the expansion of LNG export infrastructure – to be consistent with climate commitments. This was reflected in the 2016 approval that Woodfibre LNG received.

This rigorous approach was reflected in the environmental assessment process that the Squamish Nation conducted (the first of its kind in Canada), which led to the final decision by the Nation’s Council to approve the project in 2018, contingent on the proponent satisfying the 25 environmental conditions issued under the Nation’s EA process.

Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell has been clear: “If our lands and waters are not protected LNG plants or other industrial operations simply won’t get built. Period.” The proponent’s commitment to fulfilling the Nation’s requirements resulted in the project amending its design to incorporate air cooling technology instead of seawater cooling as initially proposed.

In British Columbia, environmental responsibilities are core to the four conditions for LNG Proposals: projects must guarantee jobs & training opportunities, provide fair returns, respect and partner with First Nations, and protect air, land, and water, including the climate.

Furthermore, under BC’s Environmental Assessment Act (2018), a required assessment matter is “greenhouse gas emissions, including the potential effects on the province being able to meet its targets under the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act” (s. 25 (h)). Although the project was granted its environmental certificate under the previous Act, where emissions reduction was not explicitly a condition, the proponent has nevertheless raised the bar on the project, above and beyond the requirements. 

Besides, opponent’s efforts to apply the repealed Act to how the EAO considers the extension aren’t just misguided – they are efforts to derail the project at all costs. This is all part of a plan to landlock Canadian energy products by any means possible, including complex legal strategies that intend to draw regulators and proponents into conflict, pit communities and job creators against each other, and seek to wear down projects with costly delays until the proponent finally walks away.

Opponents have already failed to convince Canadians and our representatives that kneecapping whole industries is the right approach to climate action, so they resort to desperate tactics, like demanding that municipalities act on information presented with a clear bias.

4. All levels of government that have the jurisdiction to make decisions about Woodfibre LNG have looked at jobs and economic activity. This was true even before the pandemic hit. For a Council to be seeking to push away investment in a time of economic crisis and uncertainty about the community’s economic future isn't just tone deaf, but it is also be exceedingly irresponsible.

Small businesses have been hit especially hard by public health measures. According to a survey by the BC Chamber of Commerce, up to 90% have been impacted and 48% of small business owners report being concerned about their business possibly going under. As Squamish moves along onto the Road for Recovery, its councillors should consider the message they are sending about investments in the local economy at the same time that many tourism-reliant small businesses might struggle to ever reopen.

The erosion of the local tax base must be a serious concern for the Council as well. Once operational, the project will pay an estimated $80 million a year in taxes to various levels of government (including the District) in addition to creating 100 full-time, permanent jobs.

The recently amended District budget cuts nearly a million dollars in planned expenditures on necessary service improvements and capital projects, which has occurred directly as a result of COVID-19 impacts on the local economy. This is the effect that the crisis has already had, never mind the on-going hardship affecting hundreds of families and no doubt leading to delayed property tax payments and a potential cash crunch for the District later in the year. Looking long term, it is impossible to predict how long it will take local tourism to recover and rebuild the tax base. 

Building new economic opportunities in the face of this crisis must be a priority for all governments. Projects that have undergone years of consultation and regulatory review are an optimal choice for recovery, and must be given the certainty to proceed. This can be done with full recognition of climate objectives and the ways our energy industries in Canada can support decarbonization abroad. 

The Woodfibre LNG plant represents badly needed economic diversification at the very moment when heavy reliance on one industry, tourism, has created immense hardship in Sea-to-Sky Country. Tourism and LNG will naturally both attract their critics, but in practice residents must make realistic choices based on their actual options.

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If you have thoughts for Council in advance of the May 19th Council meeting, please considering sending them to council@squamish.ca.

Margareta Dovgal is the Director of Research at Resource Works. She completed a Master's in energy and climate policy at University College London. 


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