Woodfibre LNG project near Squamish, B.C., seeks amendments to environmental assessment
A liquefied natural gas project that would produce around two million tonnes of the fossil fuel a year near Squamish, B.C. — about 64 kilometres north of Vancouver — for export is seeking changes from Environment and Climate Change Canada over how it is required to monitor for marine mammals affected by underwater noise, such as pile driving, during construction.
Opponents of Woodfibre LNG (WLNG), which received its federal environmental approval in 2016, say the changes will harm pinnipeds — seals and sea lions — in Howe Sound, which was designated a UNESCO biosphere region in 2021.
"If this is granted, this marine mammal exemption zone will allow WLNG to expose seals and sea lions to underwater noise up to 190 dB and that's equivalent to repeated shotgun blasts," said marine scientist Tracey Saxby, executive director of My Sea to Sky, which was created in 2014 to conserve Howe Sound and oppose Woodfibre LNG.
In June, the company applied to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC) for amendments to the original environmental assessment process for the project.
WLNG wants to reduce an exclusion zone for dangerous underwater noise affecting pinnipeds from more than seven kilometres around the project — which is on northwestern shoreline of Howe Sound — to 125 metres.
It argues the original condition was put in place for all marine mammals — pinnipeds and cetaceans — and the proposed changes are to separate the two to more accurately undertake mitigation.
The company said the current terms, which would halt work if a marine mammal was in the zone, were not technically or economically feasible for the project.
"The IAAC filing will in no way diminish WLNG's responsibility or commitment to protect marine mammals, instead it acknowledges the differences between cetaceans and pinnipeds," said a statement from the company.
Steller Sea Lions are increasing in population in Howe Sound, and are listed as a species of special concern under the Federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).
A second amendment in the application seeks to change the company's responsibility for water quality monitoring and mitigating any adverse effects. It says the language of the original assessment defines too broad an area where adverse conditions could be caused by other nearby activities, such as forestry.
"The condition language inappropriately assigns responsibility to Woodfibre LNG for implementing mitigation measures in response to activities and processes that are outside of the Project's control," said the application.
After the application the IAAC produced a draft report, which found the proposed amendments to be reasonable.
"The changes would not increase the extent to which the effects of the project, as assessed during the environmental assessment, are adverse because marine mammals and human health would remain protected," said a statement from the IAAC.
The agency then held a comment period, which ended on Jan. 30, for anyone to respond to the proposed changes before a final version is sent to Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault for a decision.
Many organizations such as the Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative and the District of Squamish made submissions against approving the changes, while groups like My Sea to Sky and the Georgia Strait Alliance also asked supporters to send letters to Guilbeault demanding he deny the changes.
Environment and Climate Change Canada also made a submission proposing changes to the amendment sought over water quality monitoring and mitigation.
"What is at stake is whether it's acceptable to put the environment in jeopardy because safeguarding the conditions are not easy for a project to comply with," said Saxby who has lived in Squamish since 2001. "If a project isn't able to comply with its conditions, it should not be able to continue."
The Squamish Nation is a co-regulator of the project with the IAAC and says the decision over changes that have to do with the assessment lies with the agency.
"The Squamish Nation will continue to ensure Woodfibre LNG adheres to all Squamish Nation conditions of approval and anticipates federal agencies will do the same for their conditions," said Sxwíxwtn, a spokesperson for the nation.
"We are interested in the emerging science of acoustic impacts on seals and sea lions, and will co-operate with our co-regulator to make sure the best available science is reflected in the application decision."
Woodfibre LNG has estimated the plant in Squamish will create more than 650 jobs per year during the construction phase, and about 100 full-time jobs for more than 25 years.