Cullen questions LNG science, but willing to broker move to different North Coast site

MP Nathan Cullen is questioning the science behind a federal environmental report on the Pacific NorthWest LNG project.

MP Nathan Cullen is questioning the science behind a  federal environmental report on the Pacific NorthWest LNG project.

A draft report released Feb. 10 by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency found the project could cause a significant rise in greenhouse gas emissions and harm harbour porpoises.

But the CEAA did not find the project would cause significant harm to juvenile salmon or other fish.

Cullen, the NDP environment critic, recently signed a declaration that aims to protect Lelu Island, site of the proposed liquefied natural gas terminal near Prince Rupert, out of concern that the LNG tanker berths will damage eelgrass beds on nearby Flora Bank.

Cullen and some environmental groups maintain that eelgrass is a key nearshore habitat for juvenile salmon and other marine species important to First Nations and commercial fisheries.

“I’ve talked to a number of marine biologists since this came out and there’s been serious concern that the review was incredibly limited,” said Cullen.

“They were either trying not to look for salmon, or didn’t know how.”

Cullen said that he has long pushed for another location for the LNG project, one that will pose less environmental risk and cost Pacific NorthWest less to build — the expected cost of the project rose after it was revised to include a longer suspension bridge that moved the LNG tanker berths off of Flora Bank.

Scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) have said that trestle pilings for the bridge pose low risk to fish habitat on Flora Bank, which is just west of Lelu Island and at the north end of the Skeena River estuary.

That contrasts with a study commissioned by the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation, which found the project would likely upset the dynamic of waves and currents that keep the bank in place.

Another study paid for by the Skeena Fisheries Commission found juvenile salmon are two to eight times more abundant near the proposed LNG site than other parts of the Skeena estuary.

The CEAA draft report found that with mitigation efforts by Pacific NorthWest, including the construction of offsetting eelgrass beds elsewhere, the salmon are unlikely to be harmed.

Asked how Pacific NorthWest LNG could be built in any location given the CEAA finding about its impact on climate change — it is expected to be among the largest single-point sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the country — Cullen said it is a tough question for the Trudeau government given its recent commitments at the Paris  climate talks.

“They’re advocating for a bunch of oil bitumen pipelines as well as number of gas pipelines, all of which add to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine how you walk in two directions at the same time.”

However, Cullen still thinks there’s a deal to be made which could end the opposition and controversy surrounding the LNG project.

And that would be for the company to move to another location.

Cullen even has another location in mind – the one on Ridley Island selected by the BG Group for its Prince Rupert LNG project.

“I’ll even buy the coffee,” said Cullen of his offer to host a meeting of top executives from the companies and other decision makers.

Speaking last week, Cullen said the proposal is based on two factors – the first being the opposition to Lelu Island and the second being the recent purchase by Shell of the BG Group.

“I was never sure why they had picked Lelu Island in the first place,” said Cullen in reference to its location within the salmon-sensitive Skeena River estuary.

He added that he’s asked Petronas, the Malaysian government-owned corporation that is the lead company involved in Pacific NorthWest LNG, but has failed to get an answer.

“I know both the federal and provincial governments wanted them there. Actually, the federal government helped by changing legislation.”

Cullen said that with Shell now buying BG Group, the Prince Rupert LNG project may not proceed simply because Shell is the lead partner in the LNG Canada project at Kitimat, which is significantly further along in the development phase.

And that would make the Ridley Island location available, he said.

Cullen did caution that any shift in Pacific NorthWest LNG location would require a complete environmental review.

And he did note companies cannot be compelled to undertake massive shifts.

But those same companies could generate a tremendous amount of goodwill and cooperation from various parties, Cullen added.

“If there’s ever a region that needs economic hope, this is it,” said Cullen.

The MP even suggested there might be a role for the federal government to play in any project location change inasmuch as it needs to promote economic development.

He also said anything he might be able to do would acknowledge conversations among the Lax Kw’alaams and the Metlakatla into locations of prospective LNG projects.

“I would be really cognizant of the process they’re working through,” he said.

-With files from Rod Link