Three things you need to know about B.C.’s newest pipeline for the LNG export industry

Four years after the Coastal GasLink pipeline sparked nation-wide protests, construction of another major pipeline in British Columbia is poised to begin this summer.

The Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline, owned by TC Energy, the same company that built the Coastal GasLink pipeline, will carry natural gas from the province’s northeast to Ksi Lisims, a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility on Nisga’a territory near the Nass River estuary in northwest B.C.

The gas, commonly extracted from underground deposits through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is mostly composed of methane, which is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period when it comes to heating the planet.

The Nisga’a-led Ksi Lisims facility would be capable of producing up to 12 million tonnes of LNG annually, which would be shipped across the Pacific Ocean to countries like Japan and South Korea. Ksi Lisims — currently undergoing an environmental assessment — would be the second-largest LNG export project in the province after the LNG Canada project in Kitimat, which the Coastal GasLink pipeline will supply.

The B.C. government approved the Prince Rupert gas pipeline in 2014 to supply the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG facility on Lelu Island, near Prince Rupert. That project was cancelled in 2017, leaving the transmission line in limbo. Then, in 2019, TC Energy obtained a five-year extension to its environmental certificate. The extension came with several conditions the company must meet, including completing a cumulative effects study for the project in consultation with First Nations.

In March, Nisg̱a’a Nation and Texas-based Western LNG announced a deal to buy the pipeline from TC Energy. In late May, TC Energy submitted a letter to B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office, notifying the provincial government pipeline construction will start Aug. 24.

The start date is contingent on “the successful closing of the sale … to Western LNG and Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government,” Allison Denby, with Calgary-based TC Energy, wrote to the environmental assessment office. “Construction activities will be initiated within Nisg̱a’a Lands.”

Here’s what you need to know about B.C.’s newest pipeline project.

What do First Nations think of the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline?

Like the Coastal GasLink pipeline, completed last fall, the new 800-kilometre pipeline will cross numerous First Nations territories. Coastal GasLink famously faced strong opposition during its five years of construction and was slapped with extensive financial penalties for breaking multiple environmental laws.

Not all communities in the north are happy about the prospect of another pipeline cutting through northern B.C. Gitanyow Nation agreed to the Prince Rupert gas pipeline project in principle — and on paper — in 2014 but now opposes the project, saying much has changed in the past decade.

“In terms of climate change, the advance of the [United Nations] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the advance of Gitanyow policies and laws that we’ve developed around water, around protected areas — there is so much change,” Tara Marsden, Wilp sustainability director for Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, told The Narwhal in May. “At the time, the project was not what it could be today. It was still a big risk, but in a 2014 context it was not the extreme risk that we view it as today.”

Gitanyow has expressed concerns about the environmental and climate impacts the pipeline and associated liquefaction and export facility will have on salmon populations, wildlife and “implications for increasing drought, wildfire and glacial recession within our territories.”

Marsden said enforcement actions related to Coastal GasLink opposition against Indigenous land defenders by the RCMP’s Critical Response Unit (formerly known as the Community-Industry Response Group, or C-IRG) have also changed the way the Gitanyow community thinks about the pipeline.

Neighbouring Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs are also concerned about the project’s implications, including potential police intervention if community members oppose the pipeline. Simogyat (Chief) Molaxan Norman Moore previously told The Narwhal he feels the government isn’t acting in good faith.

“They’re treating us as wards of the government. They’re treating us as minions,” he said in March. “We say things and it just goes past and they’re just sitting there, nonchalant. They’re brushing us off. The government is brushing us off.”

For the Nisg̱a’a, it’s a different story.

“The Nisg̱a’a Nation has long tried to establish an economic base in the Nass Valley … in a way that agrees with our principles and our values, as we live in harmony with our lands and we move forward to building that economic base,” Nisg̱a’a Nation president Eva Clayton told attendees at the BC Natural Resources Forum in Prince George in January. “LNG will be a transformational opportunity for us to build our economy.”

TC Energy’s plan to begin constructing the pipeline on Nisga’a lands would likely postpone any potential conflict with opposing parties while achieving a substantially started designation from the environmental assessment office. Such a designation would secure government approval for the pipeline indefinitely.

Getting to that point is a race against time; the project’s environmental assessment certificate will expire in November unless the B.C. government says sufficient work has been accomplished to warrant the designation. To make the determination, the environmental assessment office will examine how much work has been done on the project, with a focus on land-based physical activities that affect the environment, according to an email from the B.C. environment ministry.

How will the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline affect the environment?

The Prince Rupert Gas Transmission project was first approved as a 900-kilometre pipeline. Moving its terminus from Lelu Island to Nisg̱a’a territory would shorten its length by about 100 kilometres. By comparison, the Coastal GasLink pipeline is 670-kilometres long.

The new pipeline will span more than 1,000 waterways, including major salmon-bearing rivers, destroy habitat for at-risk species such as caribou and cross through old-growth management areas and sensitive wetland ecosystems, according to the 2013 project description submitted to the B.C. environmental assessment office. The description said more than 200 plant species along the project route are considered by the province to be of special concern, including four that are threatened or endangered.

Of hundreds of wildlife species potentially impacted by the project, the description noted 76 are recognized as species of management concern. They include 34 species listed under the federal Species At Risk Act, 40 species listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada — an independent body which makes recommendations for federal listings — and 72 species listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern by the province of British Columbia.”

The Coastal GasLink pipeline’s environmental transgressions have set a worrying precedent for communities along the route of the new pipeline. Construction activities repeatedly failed to protect the environment from impacts and B.C. officials rebuked workers — not always consistently — for failing to meet conditions outlined in the project’s environmental assessment certificate. — Shannon McPhail lives in New Hazelton and is the executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. Her family has lived in the Kispiox Valley for generations. She said the B.C. government should re-examine its approval of the new pipeline project in light of the climate and biodiversity crises.

“Everyone agrees we are in a climate crisis,” she told The Narwhal earlier this year. “People’s wells in the Kispiox Valley are drying up — they can’t water their livestock and they haven’t had enough snow for livestock to eat or drink. There’s no way we can balance the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline project to be built through all of this forest when we’re predicted to have a wildfire season worse than last year.”

In December 2023, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation the told The Narwhal the BC Energy Regulator had directed TC Energy to engage Treaty 8 First Nations “on a number of key concerns,” primarily “regarding routing through areas of cultural or ecological significance and cumulative effects.”

TC Energy has not submitted any proposed pipeline route amendments to the environmental assessment office.

What’s next for B.C.’s newest pipeline project?

The environmental assessment process for the Ksi Lisims project aims to address any concerns, including from First Nations with differing views.

“Resolving disputes between any segments of society is complicated,” B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman told The Narwhal in May. “Resolving differences between First Nations over the impacts of a project is just as complicated.”

“I know the environmental assessment office takes that challenge very, very seriously and it is a difficult challenge,” Heyman said. “Like anything in society, not everybody agrees.”

Marsden said she’s baffled the pipeline project and the Ksi Lisims LNG project are treated as separate projects in the environmental assessment process, even though they are closely intertwined. She said the splintered process — in which the impacts of building supply pipelines are not factored into environmental assessments for LNG facilities — allows proponents to leave out potential downsides of their projects while emphasizing far-reaching benefits.

“They don’t apply the same splitting principle to the benefits,” Marsden said, noting Ksi Lisims emphasizes its LNG will offer cleaner fuel to Asian markets. “They want to talk about the benefits of replacing coal in Asia, that’s their bottom line … so they want to look at something way beyond the scope of anything the B.C. government can control. But they don’t want to look at the impacts associated with the project that are right here in B.C.”

These impacts include putting strain on B.C.’s climate ambitions. The Ksi Lisims LNG facility and associated activities, including pipeline construction and gas extraction, will produce carbon and methane — increasing emissions despite the province’s legislated reductions targets.

Documents previously obtained by The Narwhal indicate the B.C. government hopes to provide electricity for Ksi Lisims with a new taxpayer-funded $3 billion transmission line. And while Ksi Lisims proponents say electrification will significantly lower emissions, it’s unclear if the province, facing widespread drought and reduced hydro capacity, will have enough electricity to meet escalating demand from the LNG sector.

Other documents obtained by The Narwhal reveal BC Hydro wants to skip an environmental assessment for the new transmission line.

The environmental assessment office is unlikely to complete its review of the Ksi Lisims project before B.C.’s October election, in which the impacts of climate change and the future of resource development are likely to be prominent issues.

Following the end of a public comment period in December 2023, the assessment office requested additional information from the Nisg̱a’a Nation and its partners to address concerns identified during the public engagement period. Concerns included the facility’s carbon emissions, power requirements and potential environmental and wildlife impacts.

The proponents have up to one year to submit a revised application.

— With files from Shannon Waters

Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Narwhal