Massive new fossil fuel infrastructure would contribute greenhouse gas emissions for many decades to come, argues Environmental Law Centre
A $5.6 BILLION PETROCHEMICAL COMPLEX proposed for Prince George should go to public hearings as part of an impact assessment conducted by an expert independent panel before any provincial approvals, say environmental law scholars at the University of Victoria.
Calgary-based West Coast Olefins Ltd wants to tap into a natural gas pipeline through northern BC to extract liquid ethane, propane, butane and natural gas condensate as feedstock for manufacturing plastics and synthetic rubber for export to Asian markets.
It would represent a dramatic expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in British Columbia, one of three co-dependent plants. They would include: a natural gas liquids recovery plant; an ethylene plant to produce a million tonnes of polymer-grade ethylene a year; and the polyethylene plant producing plastic.
Following controversy from a citizens’ group in Prince George worried about possible air pollution from the proposed plant and local First Nations concerns, the company said it hoped to relocate the project 140 kilometres north to McLeod Lake where it was in talks with the McLeod Lake First Nation about negotiating a potential benefits agreement should the project go ahead.
But talks fell through and the company subsequently dumped that plan and said it wanted once again to build in Prince George.
Prince George already has a long history of serious industrial air pollution (photo Creative Commons)
Both the Lheidli T’enneh Nation in Prince George and the McLeod Lake Indian band have since publicly opposed the proposed development and rejected future negotiations.
In a 26-page letter to George Heyman, the minister of environment and climate change strategy, Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the university’s Environmental Law Centre, says the proposal contradicts provincial climate objectives.
With every major long-term investment in infrastructure whose existence depends upon fossil fuel use into the future, it becomes more difficult for all of us to deal with the climate emergency, Sandborn’s letter points out.
The letter was delivered to Heyman Wednesday morning, August 25th.
Tuesday the US government ordered a delay in development of a $9.4 billion plastics and petrochemicals complex in south Louisiana in response to environmental concerns and community backlash.
It is calling for an extensive environmental assessment following objections that the complex would double toxic emissions in the local area and release up to 13 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, equal to the pollution pumped out by three coal-fired power plants reported The Guardian newspaper.
The letter to Heyman observes that Prince George already has a long history of serious industrial air pollution because of strong inversion effects that trap pollutants in the city’s air shed and cites a 2011 study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health estimating that as many as 81 deaths a year could be attributed to fine particulate air pollution.
It cites objections from First Nations and from Prince George citizens who are worried about impacts upon air quality, occupational health issues for workers associated with petrochemicals, risks of fire and explosion, potential impacts upon water quality and fish habitat and the proposed site of the complex which it says is too close to the Fraser River.
All these deserve an independent assessment, the letter says. “Approval of this complex may be one of the most consequential climate change decisions your government ever makes.”
It says the proposed complex poses “profound risks” to the global environment because expansion of plastics manufacturing infrastructure “could lock in greenhouse emissions for decades to come” at the same time that the Province has pledged to reduce emissions dramatically.
And the development would be an incentive spurring expansion of fracking and other natural gas production activities, add to the plastic pollution already linked to widespread environmental harm, undermine provincial and federal efforts to reduce plastic waste and undermine efforts to encourage plastics recycling.
Ken James, the CEO of West Coast Olefins, did not respond to a request for comment made last Tuesday.
But “there are a lot of us here who are worried about the potential consequences such projects might bring, says Zoe Meletis, a geography professor at the University of Northern BC. She speaks for Too Close 2 Home, a Prince George citizens group concerned about potential environmental consequences for the city of 74,000 about 800 kilometres north of Vancouver. “We have a lot of questions and concerns as there has been so little public discussion and information shared,” said Meletis.
Meletis said the group approached the Environmental Law Centre at UVic for help preparing a request to the Province for a more comprehensive and public environmental assessment because “we want to know more about the exact nature of the many sites that are part of WCO’s long term vision for the two sites, and all of the costs, benefits and impact those are likely to entail, particularly when overlaid on top of everything Prince George and area are already dealing with, for example air pollution, particulate matter etc..”
The letter to Heyman warns that limiting an environmental assessment to one element of the complex—the ethylene plant—risks being uninformed about the full potential impact of the proposed project.
“You have to see the entire thing—the whole petrochemical complex—to come to any rational conclusion,” Sandborn’s letter says.
“British Columbians must have an assessment of the overall project, to see what real-world, cumulative impacts are likely.”
In fact, it argues, the $2.8 billion ethylene project requires a second facility—a $1.3 billion natural gas liquids recovery plant—to provide its feedstock and a third facility—a $1.5 billion polyethylene plant plant which would turn the ethylene into plastic pellets for export to overseas plastics fabricators.
The three projects and their impacts have to be assessed as a whole not as individual projects, the letter says, because if billions of dollars have already been spent on an extraction facility those sunk costs are highly likely to skew assessments of subsequent projects.
“The pressure to complete an ‘overall project’ that is halfway there will be substantial.”
And government has an obligation to transparently obtain a fully objective assessment of whether the proposed project is congruent with the Province’s oft-stated commitment to fight climate change, reduce plastic waste and enhance recycling of materials to create a circular economy.
The letter argues there is evidence that the proposed project will seriously undermine all these stated government objectives, which makes an independent expert review imperative.
An independent panel is needed to consider other potentially serious impacts on Indigenous people, local citizens and the region’s environment, Sandborn argues. And, he says, there’s a risk that creating a massive petrochemical complex there would both foreclose a more prosperous and sustainable future for Prince George and put the Province at risk of having a major asset stranded and made worthless as the rest of the world pivots aggressively from fossil fuels to mitigate the growing climate emergency that as brought repeated summers of unprecedented fire and drought to BC.
“We are very wary about the two sites being ‘too close to home’ in terms of proximity to neighbourhoods, agricultural lands, and greenspaces that we value,” Meletis says. “We know that oil and gas is a dying industry, and that plastics are part of the push to eke out a final stage or rebranding of that industry.
“Why should Prince George suffer ill effects for a plastic product that we are going to send elsewhere? How does all this fit with recent ongoing efforts to make our city and region more sustainable, diverse and resilient in the face of climate change?
“Just because people of Prince George have learned to live with the ‘smell of money’ in terms of pulp mill and other emissions, it doesn’t mean they want the same for their kids and grandkids.”
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.