Out on a beach, Patricia Heintzman looks across the water at an old industrial site along the northwestern shore of Howe Sound.
Not too long ago, the District of Squamish councillor recalled, “terrible smoke” billowed out there from a pulp mill owned by Western Forest Products.
When the Woodfibre plant closed in 2006, the land had experienced more than a century of industrial use. Bought last year by Singapore-based Pacific Oil & Gas, the 86-hectare property may soon roar back to life, processing liquefied natural gas (LNG) for export.
Hailed by the Asian company’s Canadian subsidiary, Woodfibre Natural Gas Limited, as mutually beneficial for the investor and the community, the plan has fired up strong opposition from local residents.
While on a stroll along the Squamish oceanfront on March 7, Heintzman related that during the previous couple of weeks, the municipality had received “hundreds” of letters against the $1.6-billion project.
“That’s definitely the overwhelming voice we’re hearing right now,” Heintzman told the Georgia Straight by phone. “People don’t want it to happen.”
Although there’s “anecdotally…a level of support in the community”, the third-term councillor and chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District noted, “not very many” have written so far to express approval.
She acknowledged that the District of Squamish doesn’t have much of a say in the project. The site is zoned industrial, and there is no need to amend the town’s official community plan.
Woodfibre Natural Gas Limited has set an ambitious goal of starting operations in 2016. Not even the B.C. Liberal government, which has built a dream of economic prosperity out of natural gas, seems to be as optimistic as to when proposed LNG plants in the province can get going.
In its 2014 budget, tabled on February 18, the government didn’t include revenue from a yet-to-be-legislated LNG tax in its three-year fiscal plan. However, the province looks determined to have the Woodfibre application processed fairly soon.
Two days after Woodfibre Natural Gas Limited submitted its project description to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office wrote the federal agency, on November 27, 2013, asking that the province take the lead in the review.
On February 19, 2014, federal minister of environment Leona Aglukkaq granted the request under an existing substitution agreement, which provides for a single assessment of specific projects.
Squamish lies in the constituency of Jordan Sturdy, the B.C. Liberal MLA for West Vancouver–Sea to Sky.
When asked by the Straight about his opinion regarding the proposed LNG plant, Sturdy started by saying he has witnessed how the water, air quality, and Howe Sound ecosystem have improved in recent years. The organic farmer, a long-time resident of the region and mayor of Pemberton until February 5, frequently travels Highway 99, on the sound’s eastern shore.
“What we have to think overall is, how do we keep moving in the right direction?” Sturdy said by phone. “How do we keep ensuring that biodiversity is supported and enhanced? How do we make sure the water quality is constantly improving, and then ensure that we continue to see the wildlife come back? And I personally don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive.”
Although the B.C. Liberal government has a lot riding on LNG, Sturdy insisted that the Woodfibre project is not a done deal.
“They need to have the right set of circumstances,” he said about the proponent, which has yet to make a final investment decision. “And as a government, our objective is to ensure that the province, overall, is a beneficiary.”
Last week, the Straight reported that there is “quiet but strong local support” for the Woodfibre project.
Nate Dolha, who moved to Squamish with his family in 2008, agrees with that account.
“The job situation here hasn’t kept pace with the population growth, and so we’re in a situation now where really there is a lot of low-paying service jobs in town and that’s about it,” the former district-council candidate told the Straight by phone. “There’s a lot of folks that would like to make a life here, me included.”
With the closure of the old Woodfibre pulp mill, Squamish lost an industrial taxpayer, prompting the town to raise property taxes and service fees, according to Dolha.
Woodfibre Natural Gas Limited is promising 600 jobs during construction (which might not be in Canada) and 100 jobs at the plant for 25 years.
However, Squamish resident Luisa Nitrato Izzo said that these jobs will likely be filled by labour imported from the U.S. and Asia because the town doesn’t have the skilled workers needed for the project.
“The whole rhetoric about this being good for the community is bogus,” Izzo told the Straight by phone.
As well, municipal taxes to be paid by the LNG plant may not even come close to the $2-million annual tax contribution of the old pulp mill, according to resident Tracey Saxby.
Saxby explained by phone that the proponent’s preferred configuration for a plant is a moored barge, which pays less than a land-based facility.
Izzo’s husband, Chris Laundy, noted in another phone interview that the provincial government has also indicated that it may cap municipal taxation on industrial property as an incentive for LNG players.
Although resident Delena Angrignon agrees with the need to widen Squamish’s tax base, she told the Straight by phone that it’s not worth the emissions from the LNG plant.
It’s a concern shared by both Coun. Heintzman and plant supporter Dolha.
“One of the biggest issues for myself and even for supporters of LNG is that if they burn natural gas to compress the gas into liquid form, there will be significant impacts on our airshed,” Heintzman said.
With smokestacks blowing away, “it will be awful,” she added.
Dolha said that this may be avoided if the province allows Woodfibre Natural Gas Limited to use electricity instead to liquefy gas.
If that happens, Dolha expects “that one real argument” against the plant to evaporate.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see the airshed like it was in the old days,” Dolha said.