Woodfibre LNG in Canada threatens UNESCO reserve
The scenic Howe Sound, in British Columbia, has seen a stunning improvement in marine life. But this “success story” is under threat from the proposed Woodfibre LNG project, critics say.
(Squamish, British Columbia) About an hour north of Vancouver, British Columbia, a small town sits on the coast, tucked between soaring cliffs at the end of a densely-forested fjord. Squamish used to be a mining and logging town, but is now increasingly a tourist destination, a rock-climbing mecca, and also a rapidly growing community for people priced out of Vancouver. It sits between Vancouver to its south and the international ski resort of Whistler to its north.
The picturesque mountain community may also become a significant source of gas exports for Canada, a jumping off point to send fracked gas from interior British Columbia to Asia. But the highly controversial Woodfibre LNG project is years behind schedule, costs have ballooned, and its fate remains up in the air.
Squamish is located on the edge of Howe Sound, or Átl’ka7tsem, as it is known to the Indigenous Squamish people. Forested mountains surround the estuary, where brackish waters support abundant marine life. In 2021, Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO because of its rich biodiversity, including glass sponge reefs, prehistoric coral-like animals that until their discovery in the 1980s, were thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago.
Pollution has plagued Squamish and the surrounding coastline for decades, accumulated from a major copper mine, a chemical plant, and a pulp mill. But heavy industry shut down in the 1990s and 2000s, cutting contamination that was oozing into the sound. Robust efforts at habitat restoration have also been a boon. Taken together, the area is making a dramatic ecological recovery, even as environmental degradation remains an ongoing problem.
“The herring are coming back. And herring are the foundation of the food web. They feed everything else,” Tracey Saxby, a marine scientist, told Gas Outlook during an interview at her home. “So, with the herring coming back, we’re seeing an increase in salmon. And we’re also seeing an increase in seals, sea lions, and whales.”
The presence of whales, a top predator, is a good indicator that there is a functioning ecosystem. “They wouldn’t be there otherwise,” she said. “So, it has been a joy to witness the orcas and humpbacks coming back into Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound when they had not been up here in nearly a century.”
Last year, nearly 400 humpback whales were spotted in the Salish Sea, the larger body of water to which Howe Sound connects. That is the highest number of whales ever recorded.
Saxby is a marine scientist, but left her scientific perch in 2007, and moved into activism because she felt that her research was not reaching broader society. She was demoralized by the deterioration of the environment, the worsening climate crisis, and the lack of action. She spearheaded a municipal ban on plastic bags in an interior town in British Columbia, a campaign that inspired a nationwide movement.
“I think there’s a real shift that is happening right now, particularly with climate change, where scientists are realizing that nobody’s listening to us. We’re doing all this amazing science, but nobody is actually listening to us,” Saxby said. “I couldn’t just sit back. It became very clear to me that I couldn’t just record what was happening anymore. As a scientist, with the knowledge that I had, I had to start speaking up.”
She cofounded My Sea to Sky, a community organization in Squamish, and for the past decade, she has been fighting against a proposed LNG project called Woodfibre LNG that would be built on Howe Sound. To supply the terminal, gas would be shipped from northeast British Columbia, across great distances and over rugged mountain terrain. The gas would be liquefied and exported from the Woodfibre site about seven kilometres from Squamish.
“At the time, when I first heard about Woodfibre LNG, I thought it was a good idea because I was living here when the pulp mill closed, and I know how much that hurt the community,” Saxby said. She thought the proposed LNG project would bring jobs. But as she learned more about it, she grew alarmed over the health, safety, and environmental risks. She started attending public information sessions, which only deepened her concern. “I just started asking questions. And they couldn’t answer any of the questions,” she said.
Saxby said the enormous environmental progress, the restoration of Howe Sound, and the recovery of marine life would all be put in jeopardy if the LNG project goes forward.
“Howe Sound is a good news story. Everything is coming back and just at the moment when we are witnessing the recovery, this massive fossil fuel industry threatens all of that,” she said. “It puts it all at risk.”
If built, Woodfibre LNG would export 2.1 million tonnes of gas per year (mtpa), a relatively modest size as far as LNG projects go. By way of comparison, the Shell-backed LNG Canada project located further north, the only major LNG project in Canada currently under construction, will have a capacity of 14 mtpa.
Woodfibre would need to source its gas from more than 1,600 kilometres away. An existing long-distance pipeline called Westcoast Transmission System carries gas from the Montney shale fields in northeastern British Columbia down to the southwestern corner of the province at the Canadian-U.S. border. In order to connect this source of gas to Woodfibre’s site, the project has partnered with Fortis BC, a gas utility in the province, to build the roughly 40-kilometre Eagle Mountain-Woodfibre gas pipeline, which would bring gas north from the Westcoast pipeline system in the Vancouver area to Squamish, where it would feed the yet-to-be-built LNG terminal.
The LNG site itself is not accessible by a major road. As a result, Fortis BC needs to drill beneath the Squamish River, through one side of a mountain and emerge on the other side, popping up at the Woodfibre site on Howe Sound.
Both the LNG project and the Eagle Mountain pipeline pose risks to Howe Sound and its surrounding communities, according to opponents.
The Eagle Mountain pipeline would have an unusually high level of pressure, even when compared to other gas pipelines, says Spencer Fitschen, a retired provincial safety manager and senior safety officer at Technical Safety B.C., a provincial regulator of oil and gas equipment. Fitschen is also on the board of My Sea to Sky.
“That one is less than 1,000 psi. This one is over 2,000 psi,” Fitschen said, referring to Eagle Mountain’s much higher level of pressure compared to existing Westcoast pipeline system. “It’s an incredibly high-pressure gas line.”
When the project was originally proposed years ago, the pipeline route travelled through areas without many people. But Squamish is growing rapidly, with new housing developments springing up, with hundreds or even thousands of people that could be living within a half kilometre of the pipeline if it is built.
“So, you’re going from a proposal to install a gas pipeline through an incredibly sparsely populated area, with maybe 10 families impacted, to now a pipeline that’s been approved for an area where you’ve got literally thousands of people in what many would consider an area of high hazard, being that close to the pipeline,” Fitschen said.
He’s concerned about the risk of an explosion, and he pointed to a 2018 explosion at an Enbridge gas pipeline near Prince George, about 700 kilometres north of Squamish. The incident was the result of corrosion, and the blast left a huge crater in the ground and scorched trees nearby.
Explosions are a risk, but fire is probably a greater concern, Fitschen said.
“Jet fires emit tremendous levels of radiation which can injure and kill people in very short periods of time,” he said, referring to fires that shoot out of a pipeline when gas is released at high pressure. “Liken it to being too close to the sun.” Those fires can then set off forest fires that spread the disaster beyond the initial area.
“To allow a pipeline of a pressure and size — and particularly the pressure — that I can’t find an equal to, certainly in British Columbia, is something that is not normally done in first world countries when there is a population density such as is proposed in this area,” Fitschen said.
But the potential risks of explosion are not the only safety concerns.
The influx of hundreds of workers that will reside in temporary work camps could result in an increase in crime, some members of the community fear, with particular concerns related to violence against women and girls. This is an issue that has been linked to oil, gas, and mining projects elsewhere. For example, between 2006 and 2012 during the oil boom in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, violent crime increased dramatically, and there was no corresponding spike in crime outside of oil-producing areas. In particular, sexual assault against Indigenous women increased significantly.
In 2019, Canada published a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a multi-year government-led investigation into systemic violence and human rights violations against Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Among one of the findings was that “there is substantial evidence” on the connection between “resource extraction projects and violence against Indigenous women,” and the report drew special attention to projects that have high concentrations of transient male workforces.
Woodfibre LNG will require two such “mancamps” — encampments with trailers that house hundreds of men during the construction phase. The Eagle Mountain pipeline will need a 650-person camp in Squamish. And the LNG terminal will require another tranche of housing, but because the LNG site is not accessible by road, the workers will be housed on a cruise ship in Howe Sound. This “floatel,” as it is nicknamed, would host 400-600 people.
“Both are sizable transient populations to be bringing into a town this size,” Sue Brown, a staff attorney for Justice for Girls, a human rights NGO based in BC, told Gas Outlook. Justice for Girls filed a submission to the province opposing the workcamp.
“Squamish is a fairly young, fairly dense population to be test-running a 650-person workcamp when we can now at least say with some certainty that there are absolutely increases in violence that come with these camps,” Brown said.
She said that although the connection between workcamps and gender-based violence has been extensively documented, there still isn’t adequate data because there are no obligations on companies or on the Canadian government to track it in any systematic way. “This is a reasonably new conversation, although it shouldn’t be. We actually need to study it before we approve any more large projects and put women and girls at risk,” Brown said.
She added that the provincial and federal governments have acknowledged the link between extractive industries and gender-based violence, but they haven’t acted in any definitive way to prevent it. “In our view, Canada and the province have failed wholesale on all of those obligations,” she said.
Fortis BC did not respond to a request for comment from Gas Outlook.
The dangers of a high-pressure gas pipeline travelling through Squamish, and the work camp, have raised alarm bells for some members of the city council.
“Fortis BC is expecting Squamish to accept a disruptive and poorly-planned fossil pipeline construction camp for the sake of a new fossil gas pipeline in close proximity to Squamish citizens…a pipeline apparently far bigger than they have anywhere else in their network,” Squamish City Councillor Chris Pettingill told Gas Outlook in an email. “And that comes with a corresponding increase in consequences to Squamish’s population if there’s failure.”
Still, other members of the Squamish city council believe the risks are not significant. Councillors Eric Andersen and John French each told Gas Outlook that they are satisfied with the precautions put in place by Fortis BC. “I believe both companies have done their best to reduce the risks and the potential social impacts on Squamish,” Councillor French said.
In 2018, Woodfibre LNG secured the support of Squamish Nation, an Indigenous community with a small reservation on the other side of Howe Sound. The First Nation will receive monetary benefits from the LNG project, and it also imposed certain environmental conditions on the terminal. A handful of other LNG projects in British Columbia have partnered with First Nations, a formula that industry analysts say has catered to investors’ ESG concerns.
Two larger LNG projects further north stand out —Ksi Lisims LNG is a partnership between a group of Canadian gas producers and the Nisga’a Nation, while Cedar LNG is majority Indigenous-owned by the Haisla First Nation, in partnership with Canadian energy company Pembina.
The agreement with Woodfibre was in many ways “groundbreaking,” Charlene Williams, a member of Squamish Nation, told Gas Outlook, as it allowed the Squamish people a seat at the table and secured some changes in the project’s design. For instance, an earlier design for Woodfibre would have used a water-cooling system, but Squamish Nation, concerned about impacts to fish, convinced them to switch to an air-cooling system.
But the decision to support the project was highly controversial even within the First Nation, with many people opposed altogether.
Squamish Nation leadership argued that it was better to cooperate with Woodfibre LNG so that it could have a voice and secure some environmental protections.
Williams wasn’t convinced. “I feel like that’s always the message that First Nations people receive from this type of industry: ‘You can get into bed with us and that way at least you’re going to get some of the money, some of the jobs, you’re going to have some say about how the project is run. Or we’re just going to push it through anyways and that way you’re going to get nothing,’” Williams said. “And that seems to be the norm.”
She opposes the project and felt that if Squamish Nation had fought against Woodfibre, maybe they could have blocked it.
Williams fears the impact on marine life, which only recently started to show dramatic improvement. Herring and salmon are sources of food, but also hold great cultural and spiritual significance.
“In the past three years we’ve had this huge population of sea lions that have been coming back. I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve never seen sea lions. I’ve never seen the porpoise. I’ve never seen the killer whales,” Williams said. “They’ve never come here until recently, just as these herring are coming back.”
“What we’re seeing now is a whole pulse of life coming back to the sound that hasn’t been there for over 100 years,” she said. But she fears that if the LNG plant is built, “we’re going to start going backwards.”
Opponents of Woodfibre LNG are concerned about air pollution from gas flares at the site, citing studies from the U.S. that have shown that mothers who live within three miles of a gas flare are 50 percent more likely to have preterm births. The health impacts of living in close proximity to gas drilling are numerous and well-documented.
Woodfibre says those comparisons are unfair because an LNG site is not comparable to concentrated upstream drilling operations. Squamish Nation has also asserted that environmental risks from flaring could be overstated. Woodfibre LNG has promised that flaring would only occur on 11 days out of the year.
But as Gas Outlook has previously reported, other LNG terminals in North America have made similar claims, even as flaring events occur routinely.
Environmental hazards also lurk in the water. The LNG terminal will be built on the same site as an old pulp mill that shutdown years ago. The ground remains highly contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals, and construction could disturb and release those contaminants into Howe Sound.
Noise is another danger to marine life. “Almost everything that lives underwater uses sound to communicate, to find food, to escape predators, to reproduce. Sound is really, really important,” Saxby said. “And when you add underwater noise pollution, it can greatly affect everything that lives underwater.”
There will be noise from construction and also during operation. Woodfibre LNG would use floating storage units to hold the gas, and these vessels would produce noise constantly. Shipping traffic to and from the site would also create underwater sound. “The impacts of underwater noise have never been assessed,” Saxby said.
Rather than address these issues, the Canadian government recently agreed to revisions to ease the burden on Woodfibre LNG. Originally, the site would need to shut down operations when seals or sea lions were detected within seven kilometres, but the company said that was too restrictive. A federal body that reports to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change agreed in August to narrow that exclusion zone to just 125 metres. The same body also weakened the restrictions on water pollution flowing from the site into Howe Sound.
Saxby pointed to the disconnect in Canadian federal energy and environmental policy.
“It’s the strangest thing that the federal government is spending so much money right now on the restoration of the Squamish Estuary, while at the same time, another part of the government is promoting this LNG facility that puts all of that work at risk,” Saxby said, referring to Natural Resources Canada, which approves and promotes LNG, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a federal agency that works to restore habitats. “It’s like a two headed snake and they don’t communicate. It’s extremely problematic.”
The Canadian government continues to support the buildout of LNG as a source of economic growth.
Saxby said that under the previous Conservative government years ago, she was not surprised that the government approved so many oil and gas projects. But she initially had hope when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came to power.
“We thought things would change. And then they didn’t. They just rubber stamped the projects just like the other government,” she said. “And same with the provincial government. So much effort went into electing the [New Democratic Party] government [in British Columbia]. And nothing changed, and in many cases it got worse.”
LNG buildout could worsen climate crisis
Woodfibre LNG says that exporting gas will reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by cutting into coal use in Asia. It also makes a bold claim — that it would be the “cleanest LNG facility in the world.”
Part of Woodfibre’s pitch is that it will electrify its liquefaction operations at the terminal, differentiating itself from so many other LNG projects, which often burn gas for on-site operations. The facility will also rely heavily on carbon offsets to reach “net zero” emissions.
But there are problems with this vision. Offsets have been widely criticized as flawed or even “worthless” in terms of their climate benefit, offering polluting industry a way to continue business as usual under the guise of progress.
Even the core climate promise of Woodfibre — to electrify its immediate operations in order to cut emissions — has complications. Using so much electricity will cannibalize renewable energy that is needed for other parts of the economy, undercutting the province’s energy transition in other sectors.
As Gas Outlook previously reported, the LNG buildout in British Columbia could wreck the province’s climate targets. Although there is at least a half dozen proposed LNG projects for Canada’s Pacific coast, the construction of just two of them — Woodfibre LNG and LNG Canada — could result in B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector shooting up to nearly twice as high as the 2030 emissions target.
Critics have blasted plans for so many LNG projects, stating that it will make the climate crisis worse, not better.
More broadly, studies show that LNG is just as bad for the climate as coal, due to methane leaks up and down the supply chain. And in British Columbia, specifically, methane leaks from oil and gas sites could be 1.6 to 2.2 times higher than official government estimates suggest, according to a 2021 peer-reviewed study.
If Canada’s LNG buildout moves forward, another round of upstream drilling could kick off as Canadian gas producers connect to large markets in Asia. To feed the LNG terminals, more drilling will be required.
“Sadly, northeast BC is already very much an industrial sacrifice zone for the gas industry. There are almost 30,000 wells across the region in the Montney,” Peter McCartney, a climate campaigner for the Vancouver-based Wilderness Committee, an environmental NGO, told Gas Outlook, referring to the prolific Montney shale gas formation in the interior part of the province.
“If all of these LNG plants are built, there would be another 18,000 wells between now and 2050,” he said.
Woodfibre LNG did not respond to repeated requests for comment or to a detailed list of questions from Gas Outlook.
Slow progress, but moving forward?
The project has most of the permits needed to move forward, and construction on the Eagle Mountain pipeline is imminent, according to Fortis BC. But the pipeline and the LNG project still need some local permits and opponents are hopeful they can slow it down or stop it.
The city council of Squamish is closely divided, with some in favour and some opposed. Two councillors offered cautious support in response to questions from Gas Outlook.
“Woodfibre LNG represents opportunities for high wage local employment, substantial property tax revenue which is sorely needed, and infrastructure co-benefits such as marine facilities and emergency response program investments,” Councillor Eric Andersen said in an email.
Councillor John French said that the project “presents an opportunity for Squamish to play an important part in supplying reliable Canadian energy to regions that need it.” He said the “project does pose risks. I believe the risk is manageable,” adding that he believes Woodfibre LNG will be a “net positive” for the region.
Mayor Armand Hurford was not in agreement, saying in an email that the potential benefits could be offset by public safety, housing, and environmental impacts.
“The District has an economic development vision to create a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive economy that prioritizes the natural environment and a move away from fossil fuel dependence,” Mayor Hurford said.
Undoubtedly, the character of the region would change with a major gas export terminal coming to Squamish and Howe Sound. The risk, as many see it, is that LNG takes the region backwards.
“An influx of massive fossil fuel tankers and an always-on gas flare threatens to undermine the efforts of so many in the region,” Squamish City Councillor Chris Pettingill said. “Now is a time for climate action; not new fossil fuel plants and industrial flares in the viewscapes of millions of annual tourists that come for our environmental beauty.”
This is the first in a two-part series on the impacts of the proposed Woodfibre LNG project in Squamish, British Columbia. Read the second part here.
(Words by Nick Cunningham; editing by Sophie Davies)