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A $36 Billion Trans-Pacific Natural Gas Deal May Have Met Its Match: Canadian Salmon

A massive natural gas project might find itself in trouble as First Nations fight to protect wild salmon habitats off the coast of British Columbia
Photo via Jonathan Moore

It's taken years for Malaysia's national petroleum company to get its $36 billion fracking project to the point of breaking ground. The massive deal would ship Canadian natural gas to energy-hungry markets in Asia. But with the environmental assessment of nearing completion, political headwind and resistance from First Nations may yet unravel the plan. At the center of it all are salmon.

But the premier of British Columbia, one of the project's biggest boosters, has decried "the forces of no" and says their opposition has nothing to do with science, or protecting fish.


The project, underwritten Petronaus and led by its Canadian subsidiary Pacific Northwest LNG, is looking to connect natural gas drawn from fracking wells in the highlands of Alberta and northeastern British Columbia to a massive liquid natural gas terminal that aim to build on an island off the coast from Prince Rupert, B.C. From there, the gas would be loaded onto supertankers, destined for Asia.

If the Petronaus scheme can come to fruition, Canada natural gas will reach buyers in China, Japan, and Malaysia.

It was in Prince Rupert, this past weekend, that roughly 300 First Nations leaders, environmentalists, and politicians held a rally against the proposed development.

"Nations are united from the headwaters of the Skeena River to the ocean. Together, we will fight this to the end."

"The support to stop this LNG project is overwhelming," said Donnie Wesley, the hereditary chief of the Tsimshian Nation in a statement. "Nations are united from the headwaters of the Skeena River to the ocean. Together, we will fight this to the end."

The plan had a powerful ally in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the new Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau, has been singing largely the same tune — although he's promised to improve environmental oversight for projects like this one.

But with its political support, the $36 billion CAD ($21 billion USD) project has become one of the few remaining natural resource projects that actually has a shot of getting Canadian energy products to international markets.


Wet'suwet'en Leaders on Lelu Island. Photo via Skeena Media

If Petronaus breaks ground on Lelu Island, some 600 miles north of Vancouver, the development would create thousands of jobs in construction and is forecasted — assuming the price of gas prices rebounds — to create many more along will billions in revenue and taxes over the next decade.

The small island where the terminal would be built is, itself, undeveloped. But it's the waters nearby, especially the Flora Bank, that have drawn attention — they serve as a nursery for B.C. salmon. The critics of the terminal claim that the development and future tanker traffic would hurt the the provinces billion-dollar fishing industry and destroying the way of life of local Aboriginal peoples.

At a rally in Prince Rupert over the weekend, Aboriginal leaders signalled their intention to defend the island and its surroundings.

"[We] hereby declare that Lelu Island, and Flora and Agnew Banks are hereby protected for all time, as a refuge for wild salmon and marine resources, and are to be held in trust for all future generation," reads the declaration. "Our ancestral knowledge, supported by modern science, confirms this area is critical to the future abundance of the wild salmon our communities rely on."

Along with the declaration, provincial and federal representatives from the New Democratic Party also signed a public letter opposing the project. In the letter, the politicians point to the need to respect Aboriginal rights and consider science that predicts the gas terminal would seriously hurt local salmon.


"I'm not sure what science 'the forces of no' bring together up there, except that it's not really about the science."

On Monday, Christy Clark fired back in a press conference calling those opposed to the Pacific Northwest project reactionaries. "I'm not sure what science 'the forces of no' bring together up there, except that it's not really about the science," said the premier. "It's not really about the fish. It's just about trying to say no. It's about fear of change. It's about a fear of the future."

Building the terminal and exporting the gas would be good news for the Canadian energy industry, which has struggled to complete projects that are able to carry its oil and gas to market. Pipelines like Keystone XL and Northern Gateway face nearly insurmountable political opposition.

But among scientists, there is genuine dispute.

Related: The Dubious Environmental Science Behind a $36B Energy Project in British Columbia

To move forward, the gas development must complete an environmental impact review by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). The review process, meant to last a year, has been dragged out over more than three, as government scientists repeatedly found fault with the environmental science submitted by Pacific Northwest. But on Jan. 15 the Departments of Fisheries and Natural Resources stated that they were satisfied that new models submitted by the company showed the project would have "a low potential of resulting in significant adverse effects."


Other independent scientists, however, hired by the First Nations have published peer-reviewed studies that show the terminal would badly damage salmon fisheries.

It was for exactly that reason that, 40 years ago, the Department of Fisheries rejected another proposal to build in the area around Lelu Island.

"The construction of a superport at the Kitson Island — Flora Bank site would destroy much of this critical salmon habitat," the DFO stated in a 1973 report.

The Flora banks at low tide. Photo via Jonathan Moore.

Evaluating the competing scientific claims and balancing the various political interests around the gas project falls to CEAA. The agency is expected to issue the preliminary findings of its assessment in the next month, and these will be followed by a public comment period.

This environmental assessment process — the same one used in evaluating pipelines like Kinder Morgan and Energy East — was changed dramatically under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper and has received heavy criticism from environmentalists and politicians alike. Indeed, Justin Trudeau's Liberals made a campaign promise to reform the evaluations used by the National Energy Board and CEAA.

Catherine McKenna, Canada's new Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, will have final say on the Pacific Northwest project and other energy developments presently under evaluation.