TransCanada gas pipeline may sidestep environmental review

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TransCanada’s planned 650-kilometre natural gas pipeline to Kitimat would cross about 320 watercourses including the habitat of more than 100 species at risk, such as white sturgeon, woodland caribou and marbled murrelet, company documents show.

But under Conservative government changes to environmental laws, there’s no guarantee the Coastal GasLink project will undergo a federal environmental assessment.

“It’s a travesty of the public trust,” said Otto Langer, retired head of habitat assessment and planning for the federal fisheries department in B.C. and Yukon. “If we can’t have an environmental review on a project of this sort, this is proof we have gutted Canada’s environmental protection.”

The federal government is soliciting public comment on whether a federal assessment is warranted for the Coastal GasLink project.

Céline Legault, spokeswoman for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said that even if the project is not subject to a federal environmental assessment, “all applicable federal legislative, regulatory and constitutional requirements must be fulfilled.”

TransCanada has also submitted its project description to Victoria in advance of an official assessment by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office.

Langer dismissed the notion of a provincial assessment because the B.C. government is “giving the green light everywhere” to projects and that its environmental review process is too soft on industry.

“It’s pretty sad,” he said. “I don’t know how we slipped down this slope so quickly … and I don’t know where it will all end.”

B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office reported in August it had conducted assessments of 162 projects in the last 20 years. Only two were refused outright — Kemess North copper-gold mine in 2008, and the Ashcroft Ranch landfill project in 2011.

Coastal GasLink’s 1.2-metre-wide pipeline would extend from near Groundbirch, a community 40 kilometres west of Dawson Creek, to a proposed liquefied natural gas facility near Kitimat.

The buried pipeline would initially have a capacity of 1.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, which could be expanded to five billion cubic feet per day.

TransCanada documents outlining the pipeline project say it would cross four major drainages — the Peace, Fraser, Skeena and Kitimat rivers.

Of 286 species identified along the pipeline corridor, about 37 per cent (107 species) are recognized as species of management concern, Trans-Canada says.

That includes 17 species federally protected under the Species at Risk Act, 27 species recognized by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and 35 species designated as red (extirpated, endangered or threatened) or blue (of special concern) by the B.C. Conservation Data Centre.

More than 20 species of fish, including all five Pacific salmon species and steelhead, could be affected.

“Given the large number and diversity of species that may be encountered as a result of construction and operation of the project, there is the potential for project-related activities to affect fish and fish habitat,” the documents state.

“The potential effects of the pipeline construction on aquatic species and habitat are well known and understood. These potential effects may arise through construction of watercourse crossings or through erosion and include the deposition of sediment into watercourses, temporary disturbance of species present at crossings and potential disturbance to fish habitat.”

Langer said that despite reduced federal environmental protection, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has the nerve to boast of “Canada’s strong environmental laws, rigorous enforcement and followup, and increased fines” on its website.

Concluded Langer: “It makes me want to puke.”

Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch, said he is “astounded that there is even a thought of exempting something of such magnitude, with such potential risk.

“There is so much discretionary power now in whether anything gets an environmental assessment. I don’t think it serves Canadians well, especially those concerned about the environment.”

Under Bill C-38, passed by Parliament last June, Ottawa has limited federal protection of fish habitat to activities resulting in serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, sport or aboriginal fishery. Serious harm is defined as “death of fish or any permanent alteration to, or destruction of, fish habitat.”

Bill C-38 also transfers greater responsibility for environmental assessments to the provinces. The Conservative government argued that the move helps to avoid duplication and allows it to focus on major projects.

Ottawa continues to be involved in environmental reviews of B.C. proposed projects such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, Taseko’s New Prosperity mine in the Chilcotin, and BC Hydro’s Site C dam on the Peace River.

Bill C-45, an omnibus bill tabled last month in the House of Commons, is being criticized for further eroding environmental protection, including exempting pipelines from the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which would become the Navigation Protection Act. Only three oceans, 97 lakes and 62 rivers will be covered by the new act, representing less than one per cent of Canada’s waterways.

On Nov. 21, a coalition of groups, including the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice, released an open letter to the federal government urging that the bill not be passed.

The groups complain that the bill would also give industry the “option to request that their existing commitment to protect fish habitat be amended or cancelled” and would eliminate the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission.

“These are major changes that, if not stopped now, will ripple out across communities everywhere in Canada — putting our water, air, food and quality of life at risk,” the letter states.

The Sun reported Aug. 22 that the federal government had washed its hands of environmental assessments on 492 projects in B.C., including gravel extraction on the lower Fraser River, run-of-river hydro projects and wind farms, and bridge construction, as well as demolition of the old Port Mann Bridge, shellfish aquaculture operations, hazardous-waste facilities and liquid-waste disposal.

The deadline for written responses on the Coastal GasLink project is Dec. 3. A decision will be made available on the agency’s website no later than Jan. 3, 2013.

Construction of the project is proposed to start in 2015, with completion in 2018.

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