In a showdown over fossil fuel development versus preservation of the environment, Squamish Council voted narrowly to deny FortisBC permission for test drilling for a natural gas pipeline that would feed the proposed $1.6-billion Woodfibre LNG export plant.
The main concern is the test drilling would disturb the ecologically sensitive Howe Sound, home to dolphins, eagles, salmon and bears. The estuary is also described by conservationists as a veritable “rainforest” of eco-diversity.
Newly elected Mayor Patricia Heintzman, and three other councillors rejected FortisBC’s permit application in a four-to-three vote Tuesday night. More than one hundred people crammed the council building to witness the ruling.
“I’ve been pretty clear that I don’t think this [project] is in the best interests of the community,” said Mayor Heintzman on Wednesday.
“The way I’ve seen the project outlined – where Fortis’ pipeline is, the compressions stations, the impact of Woodfibre LNG on the [Howe] Sound – I don’t think it’s a positive for the community in the long term,” the mayor added.
FortisBC denies its drilling would cause significant environmental harm and said the council decision was “unfortunate.” The company is now evaluating its next steps.
“Obviously, we are disappointed in the decision that council made last night,” said spokesperson Trevor Boudreau on Wednesday.
“The soil samples are required – it’s part of the regulatory review of the proposed route. It’s to make sure we have confidence we can build [the pipeline] and we’ve built one in this area in the past.”
The spokesperson added that FortisBC’s planned “horizontal directional drilling” would go 50-70 metres below the Squamish riverbed, and far away from any wildlife. It’s the same technology that was safely used when the company moved its pipeline on the Fraser River to make way for the Port Mann Bridge expansion, he added.
Squamish enviro standards not met
But the proposed drilling did not meet Squamish District’s environmental guidelines for riparian areas, the mayor said. She added that Squamish’s standards are higher than the province’s guidelines.
Councillor Doug Race voted in favour of the pipeline tests, and said the standards do not restrict all industrial development.
“I don’t think the purpose of these guidelines is to sterilize the land, and say absolutely no development. What it does do is recognize sensitivity, allows development that meets certain criteria,” Race told council.
The purpose of the drilling was to test the feasibility of the rock and soil for the company’s hoped for $530-million Eagle Mountain pipeline. The pipeline’s sole purpose is to feed natural gas for the Woodfibre LNG plant.
An international conglomerate run by Indonesian billionaire Sukanto Tanoto would operate the export plant.
Province final ruler on pipeline
Ultimately, the Squamish council’s approval may not needed for the pipeline and an approval may be in the works regardless. That’s because the province will make the final decision on the project, and the Clark government has made LNG development a top economic priority.
FortisBC said two provincial authorities — the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and the Oil and Gas Commission — have already given approval for its pipeline plans.
Orcas spotted near the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant. Photo by Shannon Cunningham.
Estuary a “rainforest” of eco-diversity
Still, environmental groups celebrated the council’s decision, citing the preciousness of the eco-system.
“It’s one of the most bio-diverse eco-types anywhere on the planet. Estuaries are where you got the mixture of the freshwater and the ocean water,” said Edith Tobe, with the Squamish Watershed Society.
“It’s like a tropical rainforest… [in terms of] the amount of plant and animal life. A rich mixture of the soils, sediments and plants that really thrive in these conditions.”
“When I dig my hand into the estuary mud, it’s full of those little wiggly invertebrates. That’s the whole reason we have so much diversity. There’s so much food for the birds, the fish, the otters that live in the estuary,” Tobe added.
The society says the Squamish Estuary is also a haven for migratory birds, including bald eagles and FortisBC’ test drilling, though limited, would have impacts.
“It’s not a benign activity,” said Tobe.
Mayor Heintzman herself was also a well-known anti-LNG councillor before she ran for the council’s top job in November.
She suggested Wednesday that FortisBC might opt to come back with a new proposal that better addressed the council’s concerns.
The province’s Environmental Assessment Office will host two public open houses for the LNG proposals:
- Woodfibre LNG project – Jan. 28, from 4 pm to 8 pm at the CN Roundhouse & Convention Centre in Squamish.
- FortisBC pipeline – Feb. 11, from 2 pm to 8 pm at the Sea to Sky Hotel, 40330 Tantalus Way in Squamish