Squamish LNG proposal crystallizes debate on city’s past, and future

WATCH: The company behind a proposed woodfibre LNG plant near Squamish is going on a PR offensive as they face opposition to their project. Geoff Hastings reports.

If you want to get a sense of the LNG debate in Squamish, the best view may come from 2,800 feet above Howe Sound on the Sea to Sky Gondola.

The impressive structure, which opened last year, is the latest attraction that highlights the city’s eco-tourism opportunities and increasing liveability. But it also affords a panoramic view of Woodfibre, the site of a pulp mill that once fuelled the town’s economy and caused untold pollution in Howe Sound for decades.

Now, Woodfibre is one of several LNG battlegrounds in British Columbia, where proposed economic benefits are less important to many local residents than potential environmental costs.

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“There’s a new vision of Howe Sound emerging as maybe not an industrial hotbed, and maybe being known for its tourism and environmental assets,” says Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman.

Heintzman and city council have rejected the $1.7 billion Woodfibre LNG proposal as it currently stands, saying that while the jobs are tempting, the cons outweigh the pros.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions about whether it would negatively impact other economic drivers in the community, whether or not the environmental impacts will be significant, there’s definitely potential for air quality issues,” she says.

“There’s a different demographic here. We’re a very young, very lifestyle-oriented community. People are moving here because of the lifestyle, the amenities. People don’t want to jeopardize that. People want to ensure that our momentum isn’t jeopardized by the idea that we become an industrial town again. There’s probably a marriage in there somewhere, but there’s the fear that one will supercede the other.”

LNG 101: Where the LNG industry currently is at in British Columbia

The project is considered further ahead than virtually any of the other 18 LNG proposals in this province. The land is properly zoned, and the construction demands are relatively small. A hydroelectricity line is already in place to provide energy. Natural gas is already provided to Squamish from Fortis BC. Supply agreements have already been made for the gas with Asian companies. And an LNG terminal on the land would ensure a full environmental cleanup from the decades of damage caused by the former pulp mill.

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Not to mention the 100 permanent jobs and $2 million annually in local tax revenue, which would replace the money lost when the Woodfibre Pulp Mill shut down in 2006.

“This will be about a $650 million build on site,” says says Byng Giraud, Woodfibre LNG VP, who promises it would be among the greenest LNG facilities in the world. “That’s money that will go directly into the economy.”

Still, there is plenty of skepticism, from the effects a seawater cooling system would have on the environment, to the objectivity of the province’s Environment Assessment Process, which is still underway. In addition, the Squamish First Nation have also not given their approval for the project.

Giraud is hopeful Woodfibre LNG is up and running by early 2018. A final investment decision is expected this year, like many of the proposals in B.C.

In cities across the province, the LNG debate informs discussions about the future. But in Squamish, it’s the town’s past that hangs over discussion.

“I think ironically our industrial legacy hurts them, because people do not want to see that sort of legacy left anywhere in Howe Sound anymore,” says Heintzman.

“What they did back then…they had their fuel lines right in the riverbed. We can’t do business like that anymore.”

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