Fletcher: Clean LNG can still be done

Disagreement over how to power the processing of liquified natural gas, which the Haisla are pioneering with provincial assistance.

On Friday, as the federal government was giving the green light to a Malaysian investment of billions more into northern B.C.’s liquefied natural gas megaproject, Coastal First Nations chiefs held their quarterly board meeting in Vancouver.

These are now the most powerful aboriginal leaders in North America, bankrolled by U.S. environmental groups and their wealthy charity foundation backers as guardians of the Great Bear Rainforest.

A major topic was the Haisla Nation, the Kitimat partner that abruptly quit its voluntary association with the Haida, Gitga’at and other communities over its plans to develop LNG exports.

This discord comes at a bad time. Premier Christy Clark has bet heavily on LNG, not just for her government’s future, but the industrial and economic direction of the province for decades to come.

Initial press reports were misleading. One had it that Haisla Chief Councillor Ellis Ross, the B.C. government’s key ally on LNG, was “buddying up” with the Harper government on the Enbridge oil pipeline proposed to go to Kitimat, in the heart of Coastal First Nations territory.

Not so. Both Ross and Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt confirmed to me that they remain solidly against the Enbridge proposal. The disagreement is over how to power the processing of LNG, which the Haisla are pioneering with provincial assistance.

Sterritt said the Haisla and the rest of the group were in agreement until a few weeks ago. The plan was to follow Clark’s solemn vow to make B.C. LNG the “greenest” in the world.

All parties acknowledge that some of B.C.’s shale gas will have to be burned to process and ship LNG to Asia. The initial idea was that one or two natural gas-fired power plants would be built, eventually backing up wind, small hydro and other renewable supplies. BC Hydro has 600 megawatts available from its dams, which would require new transmission capacity up to Kitimat to help run the first two LNG plants proposed in partnership with the Haisla.

Then the play got bigger. The B.C. government transferred Crown land on Douglas Channel to the Haisla for an LNG project planned by Shell, PetroChina and Korea Gas. And Sterritt said he started getting signals from Victoria that the industry doesn’t want to buy power from outside producers to drive LNG cooling and compression. Instead they wanted to power it directly with gas, using equipment called “mechanical drives” rather than electrical drives.

In a letter to Haisla members explaining why he quit the Coastal First Nations, Ross said he was insulted by Sterritt’s comments that the Haisla were choosing “the dirtiest way possible” to ship LNG. Ross noted that emissions would be about the same if gas is burned in the LNG plant or in a power plant nearby.

That’s true, but Sterritt points out a critical difference. If LNG producers are allowed to use single-purpose mechanical drives, no renewable energy can ever be added. And as more LNG producers rush into B.C., reserves that would have lasted 75 to 100 years could be depleted in 30.

And when the gas is gone?

“These big, hulking plants that are going to be in Kitimat are just going to be sitting there, rotting,” Sterritt said. “It happens all over the world.”

B.C.’s clean energy plan envisions extending the BC Hydro grid, developing run-of-river and wind farms such as the big offshore proposal off Haida Gwaii, and ultimately a future beyond oil and gas.

Now, in their rush to develop LNG, Clark and Energy Minister Rich Coleman seem poised to abandon that strategy.

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