By September 12, 2016

BC’s Potential Environmental Disasters: Site C and Liquid Natural Gas


The Peace Valley that the BC government wants to drown

British Columbia is the centre of several vital struggles against the continued expansion of fossil fuel exports, and mounting global warming and environmental destruction. The battle against the two proposed pipelines from the Alberta tar sands to the coast, Kinder Morgan to Vancouver and Enbridge to Kitimat, continues. The port of Vancouver is still pushing ahead with its plans to expand coal exports. On top of these, the BC government is pushing its own two mega-projects, the Site C dam and exporting liquid natural gas (LNG).

The projects are linked, as there is no need for a large increase in electricity generation, apart from power for increased resource and fossil fuel extraction and exports.

Trudeau Fails the Test

In last year’s federal election, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals made a big promise of “a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.” They also made a big deal out of the target at the Paris climate change conference to keep the temperature rise to 1.50C. In BC they are failing both of these tests.

They are pushing ahead with the tar sands pipelines. The National Post reported that “Trudeau has told his senior lieutenants to draw up plans to make the Energy East pipeline and the Trans Mountain expansion in BC a reality.”

The Federal Liberal government has given the necessary permits to allow the BC government to go ahead with the Site C dam.

Their excuse, as given by Caitlin Workman, spokesperson for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, is that the government is striving for a balanced approach and “The environment and the economy go hand in hand.” The dam has nothing to do with the economy or providing jobs. It is about trading off the environment for profits.

Grand Chief Stewart Philips said that that giving the go-ahead is “an absolute betrayal,” and discredits Trudeau’s promises for a “renewed nation-to-nation relationship” with Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Site C Dam – Power Not Needed

The BC government is pushing ahead to build a third hydro-generating dam on the Peace River at Site C. This project will cost at least $9 billion, before likely cost over-runs, to produce 1,100 megawatts of power that is not needed. The dam would definitely destroy valuable farm land and damage the environment. The Joint Review Panel concluded, “that the Proponent has not fully demonstrated the need for the Project on the timetable set forth.”

Unusually but perhaps not surprisingly, the BC government did not refer the Site C to review by the BC Utilities Commission, an agency that regulates electricity utilities and which could have provided an independent review. BC’s Auditor General has said Site C should be investigated.

The government claims the power will be needed in the future, but there are other options that are less damaging to the environment. Under the treaty for the use of power from the existing dams on the Columbia, Canada is entitled to take a portion of the power, which currently is nearly 1,200 megawatts. In recent years, BC rather than use all the power it could, has been selling off the Canadian Entitlement for around $30 per megawatt-hour. The cost of power from the Site C dam is estimated at $83 per megawatt-hour.

Other options include upgrading and expanding the power plants on existing dams. The Revelstoke dam was constructed to have a sixth turbine, which, if installed, would add 500 megawatts of capacity at a cost of $420 million.

Harry Swain, who chaired the Site C Joint Review Panel, urged an investigation of other options for power before deciding to build Site C, but his views were ignored. Since the Panel’s review, the BC government has recently announced it is looking to sell the power from Site C to Alberta. Swain said BC Hydro never mentioned Alberta in its application. He said that, “One recognizes that things change over time, but this has an air of desperation.” The former BC Hydro CEO, Marc Eliesen, says there will be a “devastating” increase in electricity bills if the Site C dam is built and emphasized there is no rush to build new sources of power generation in BC.

Another ignored alternative is developing BC’s plentiful geothermal power. BC Hydro has identified 16 sites, and the 6 most likely have a potential of 1,000 megawatts. The cost of geothermal is around $400 million for 100 megawatts.

Already the proposal to build Site C has resulted in the cancellation of two wind projects with a combined 550 megawatts. The proposers see no likelihood of the power being used if Site C is constructed.

Site C – Eco-Disaster

The proposed dam would flood over 8,300 acres of some of the best farmland in BC and BC does not have a lot of good farmland. The valley has excellent summer growing conditions, and could potentially feed one million people. At a time of growing food insecurity, and BC already importing 52% of the food consumed, it is insane to destroy farms.

The valley is important to wildlife. The Joint review Panel stated that the dam and reservoir “would cause significant adverse effects on fish and fish habitat, and a number of birds and bats, smaller vertebrate and invertebrate species, rare plants, and sensitive ecosystems.” Already the Caribou herds have been reduced due to the two existing dams and Site C will further impact their habitat. In one of the most bizarre proposals, Hydro says it will capture migrating bullhead trout and other fish below the Site C dam, tranquilize them and drive them in trucks to above the dam for release. However the young fish swimming downstream will be at risk of being killed by the turbines.

The Panel also stated that dam would “significantly affect the current use of land and resources for traditional purposes by Aboriginal peoples.” Not surprisingly, the First Nations and many other residents of the Peace region are opposed to the dam. The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations have launched a court challenge as the decision to build the dam infringes their treaty rights. First Nations downstream in Alberta, and the United Nations World Heritage Committee, are concerned that the dam will add to the negative impact of the tar sands on the wildlife in Wood Buffalo Park.

In a most unusual action, the Royal Society of Canada called on the Federal Government to put permission for Site C on hold over concerns about serious environmental impacts and ignoring of First Nations’ rights. However, Liberals in Ottawa ignored this request.

Along the tributaries of the Peace there have been an unusually large number of landslides releasing a mix of toxic metals that are not normally in near-surface goundwater, including arsenic, barium, cadmium, lithium and lead, killing fish. There is no agreed cause of these landslides, but it is possible they are linked to fracking, which occurs in the area. Building the dam will cause more landslides, possibly up to 4,000 according to a report for BC Hydro.

Why build Site C?

Site C was first proposed in the 1950s at the same time as the other dams on the Peace. Site A, the WAC Bennett dam, was constructed in 1967 and Site B, the Peace Canyon Dam, was constructed in 1980. Construction of Site C was rejected in 1982 and again in 1989. In 2010 the government announced plans to build Site C.

There is no need for the energy from Site C and it is hugely expensive, so what is the reason? BC Hydro stated that Site C is not to power the plants to liquefy natural gas. But BC Minister of Energy and Mines, Bill Bennett, states that Site C power is needed for LNG. In fact powering LNG and possibly the Alberta tar sands is the most likely explanation for building Site C. Site C is part of the BC government’s commitment to fossil fuels.

Why Liquid Natural Gas?

In the 2013 provincial election, the Liberals made Liquid Natural Gas the centrepiece of their successful re-election campaign. Throughout the campaign the Liberal leader, Christy Clark, talked endlessly about LNG and jobs.

Their election platform claimed that, “natural gas is extracted using environmentally safe methods”. They stated that developing it would, “mean 39,000 jobs to British Columbia during construction with another 75,000 full time jobs created once in operation. We can create $1 trillion in economic activity and create the BC Prosperity Fund with $100 billion over 30 years.

The basis of these amazing statements was that, at the time, gas prices were much higher in Asia than North America. Pipelines cannot carry the gas to Asia so it has to be compressed and then shipped it in big tankers. Since then gas prices have fallen and China has agreed supplies from Russia and central Asia – supplied by pipelines.

The claims in 2013 were always really a pipe dream, Christy Clark’s Liquid Fracked Gas dreams. The gas they planned to export would be produced by fracking.

Is Fracking Environmentally Safe?

The natural gas is held within shale rock; to extract the gas the rock has to be fractured. This process, called fracking, is done by injecting down a borehole, at high pressure, a mixture of water, sand and a vast array of toxic chemicals. Each borehole is fracked 10 to 14 times. Each frack uses between 0.5 to 5 million litres of water (1 million litres is 10 cubic metres). Fracking consumes vast quantities of water. In 2009 fracking in BC used 7 billion litres, taken from lakes and rivers. All this water and chemical has to go somewhere; some leaks into the ground water, and is harmful to plants, animals and humans. Some is stored in tanks, from which it leaks and some is injected back into the ground, from which it may enter the groundwater.

In with the water and sand are the chemicals, 2% of total, which can amount to between 10 to 100,000 litres of additives per frack (50,000 litres is what a large liquid truck trailer contains).

Of the 353 chemicals many are harmful to health of humans and animals. 75% may have respiratory, gastrointestinal, dermatological, and ocular (breathing, digestion, skin and eyes) effects. 40% to 50% may be neuro-, immuno- and nephrotoxic (poisonous to nerves, immune system and kidneys). 37% may be endo­crine disruptors (these impact hormones and can cause cancerous tumours, birth defects, and other developmental disorders). 25% may be carcinogenic (cause cancer). (from BC Medical Journal)

As well as the health impacts from the chemicals in the fracked water, there are “numerous reports of headaches, nausea, asthma exacerbations, depression, fatigue, and reduced cognitive functioning due to fumes and flare gas.” (from BC Medical Journal).

Natural Gas (methane) can dissolve in water and this has resulted in tap water that burns. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, and it leaks at every stage of the process, adding to global warming.

Fracking causes earthquakes. It triggered over 230 earthquakes in northeastern BC between August 2013 and October 2014.

All these problems are in the extraction process. The gas then has to be sent through pipelines to the coast. These pipelines disrupt wildlife, can damage streams and rivers, and pass through major earthquake zones.

Once the gas reaches the coast, it has to be compressed for shipping on tankers. The gas is cooled to −162 °C, which requires enormous quantities of energy which comes either from burning the gas or using hydro. At this stage more methane leaks into the atmosphere. There is a risk of large leaks that could explode.

One of the biggest proposed plants is on Lelu Island, at the mouth of the Skeena River. Petronas, the company behind this plan, acknowledges that the facility’s greenhouse gas releases (over 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year) would increase BC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 8.5%. Environment and Climate Change Canada stated it would be “amongst the largest single point sources of greenhouse gas emission in the country.” In addition, the upstream releases from extraction would add a further 6 – 8 million tonnes of CO2. This one LNG plant would destroy any chance of BC meeting its greenhouse gas targets.

In spite of BC Hydro’s claims, it is likely that Site C power is linked to LNG plans as a way of reducing the direct CO2 releases, especially the upstream releases from fracking.

The Skeena River has BC’s second largest salmon run, with an estimated annual value of $100 million. These salmon are vital to the indigenous people of this region. When the juvenile salmon swim down the river they spend time in the eel grass at the river’s mouth before swimming out into the ocean. The proposed facility on Lelu Island would damage an area which 88% percent of the Skeena salmon run uses.

Clearly Liquid Fracked Gas is Not Environmentally Safe and Makes No Economic Sense

Since Christy Clark made her wild claims about her gas dreams, the price of fossil fuels have dropped by at least 50%. In addition, other suppliers are building pipelines to China – much cheaper, as the gas does not need to be cooled, compressed and shipped by tankers. Construction has not started on any one of 20 plants that have been proposed. According to World Gas Intelligence only four of these are ever likely to go ahead. Top of their list is the one at Woodfibre on Howe Sound near Vancouver. The plant proposed by Petronas, on Lelu Island, is second in line. However, it faces serious opposition. The nearby community of Lax Kw’alaams unanimously rejected a $1billion bribe to accept the plant.

However, in spite of the lack of a strong economic case, the BC government is desperate to have at least construction started on one plant by next year’s election. They need something to show for the election promises of 2013. To encourage Petronas to go ahead the government has agreed that 40% of the workers can be foreign, and $8 billion of the $11 billion construction costs can be spent overseas. The only reason companies use foreign workers is they are cheaper – the unions need to fight for equal pay and rights for all workers.

Unfortunately the NDP has drunk Christy Clark’s Kool Aid

Bruce Ralston, the NDP critic has talked of the party’s “overall support for the creation of an LNG industry.” This, in spite of the enormous environmental harm and dubious economic benefits.

The only explanation is that the NDP think there will be some revenue to the province. The NDP would like to reverse some of the many cuts the ruling Liberals have imposed on health, education, welfare and more. However they won’t reverse the tax cuts worth $3.2 billion a year to the super rich. This means the NDP knows that they would be short of funds for much needed public services. Because the NDP accepts the neo-liberal arguments, they end up supporting fracking natural gas and other dubious schemes.

Wrong Priorities

Both the Liberal government and the NDP opposition, who support export liquid fracked gas, have the wrong priorities. The economic arguments, with the drop in gas prices, do not add up.

Even more telling, a report by Brattle Group, respected consultants, pointed out that North American LNG faces increasing competition from renewable energy. Instead of wasting money on Site C and LNG, BC should invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, insulation, public transit, etc.

Costs and Jobs: A Reality Check

BC’s premier, Christy Clark, consistently goes on about the importance of providing jobs. Of course, good jobs are vitally important as that is the only way that working people can provide adequate housing and food for themselves and their families.

However, the reality is that the BC government does not work to maximize good jobs in BC. The BC government has agreed that a lot of the proposed work on Petronas’s LNG plant can be outsourced. This government has a long history of ensuring unionized BC workers do not get employed on major government contracts.

BC Ferries has built its recent ferries overseas, with three intermediate size vessels being currently constructed in Poland and three Super-C class ferries were build in Germany a few years ago. The main contractor on the Golden Ears Bridge, costing $800 million, made it difficult for firms employing Canadian workers to bid for contracts, so much of the work was done by foreign workers. The 60 temporary foreign workers employed on the Canada Line construction were paid less than $5 per hour and were required to work 54 to 66 hours per week. One of the main Site C consortium companies with a $1.5 billion contract to build the main dam works has signed a deal with the scab so-called union, Christian Labour Association of Canada. Yet the NDP and some of the unions do not challenge the hypocrisy of Christy Clark’s jobs claims.

If providing jobs was really a priority, Site C and LNG plants would never be built. According to BC Hydro, Site C will cost around $9 billion and provide 25 permanent jobs. Petronas claims that the entire LNG project (extraction, pipeline and liquefing plant) will cost $36 billion over 30 years and provide 330 direct long-term jobs. These two projects will provide only 355 jobs at a cost of $44 billion.

In general, $1 million invested in renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transit provides between 7 and 13 jobs. If the $44 billion of these two projects was invested sanely it would provide around 300,000 jobs!

However, the people of BC do not control this money. The money is controlled by rich business people and a government that works for them.

We have to fight each proposal

There is widespread opposition to LNG and Site C. There is resistance to the plans to significantly increase coal exports through Vancouver.  There is also mass opposition to the two tar sands pipelines, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge. We will fight all these proposals and may defeat all or some of them.

However, such proposals will keep coming as long as decisions about policies and investment are made by large corporations and their political friends that are tied to fossil fuels, mega projects and short-term profits.  As Naomi Klein says, it is capitalism versus the climate.

The only way to break capitalism’s war on the climate is to take energy and resources out of the control of a tiny handful of large corporations. These corporations and the land and resources beneath should be held in public ownership with decisions about use taken democratically and ensuring well-paid jobs and respect for indigenous rights.

There is no doubt which side the BC Liberals are on. Unfortunately, some union leaders are conned by Christy Clark’s talk of jobs, which really amounts to only a few long-term well-paid jobs – if that. Also the NDP, because it does not see beyond the prison of capitalism, ends up supporting LNG and not campaigning for the hundreds of thousands of jobs, in BC alone, that public ownership of energy and the transition to renewables would provide. Socialist Alternative campaigns against Site C and LNG and for good jobs in renewable energy, developing transit and insulating buildings.

It is not a choice between jobs or the environment.  The real choice is between capitalism with environmental destruction and mass unemployment, or socialism with good jobs and a healthy planet.