Comment: Hope in Steelhead LNG Pipeline Discussions

Loys Maingon

My conscience and a friend’s request egged me on to attend the presentation by the proponents for the Steelhead  LNG pipeline project (to feed the proposed Kwispaa LNG export plant), at Comox Valley Regional District Board, on February 5.

Five decades of activist and professional experience have taught me to expect little of such meetings to the point of boredom. And indeed, the boardroom was peopled with the usual suspects from both sides, and the usual rituals were had.

Contrary to my jaded apprehension the experience gave me hope.

Steelhead’s presentation was total bromide, with polished cheery presenters exuding the dissimulated innocence of lapsed youth in the pay of industry. Presentation slides were carefully selected to present views of rocky valleys largely devoid of plants or animals. Presumably this was to give the impression that pipelines are simply going to go through lifeless areas and therefore would have little environmental impact. The standard if unconvincing answer to many questions was: “This is new technology, and therefore case histories of LNG pipeline problems did not apply.

This was nothing I have not heard over the past five decades. The technology is always new and fail-safe, until it fails. What was new was that while the older members of the Board warmed their piles and smiles, four new and younger members of the board actually asked real questions and made comments, which give me cause for hope.

Jesse Kettler put water and fish into those dry valley pictures, and asked about impacts and assessments, which drew the expected evasive replies of the proponents proposing lateral drilling techniques for 30 rivers… but much lack of clarity about hundreds of streams, creeks and wetlands.

Will Cole-Hamilton asked about the amount of freshwater that would be needed to extract natural gas, only to be dodged by a reply reminiscent of either the dead parrot skit or Air Farce’s Skunk Fur-coat salesman: “It’s no me – hey Sir. The pipeline only conveys gas. Steelhead is not responsible for damage either at source or at the end. It is a bit like being a Swiss arms dealer conveying weapons in Third World countries. The ethics, or lack thereof, seem to be the same.

Arzeena Hamir asked about the passage of the line across private and agricultural land. The pipeline would expropriate a 30 meter corridor [during construction] and permanently remove a central 10 meter swath.

The best intervention was a quiet comment by Daniel Arbour, which is really when I saw the light go on. Arbour pointed out that it was arrogant to sell China, which is a world leader in 21st century alternative energy, 19th century energy. As Arbour pointed out, he cannot understand Canada’s energy policies. (I take that as a sign of intelligent life in the Boardroom.)

Steelhead’s reply was absolutely illuminating: “This is the cleanest fossil fuel. It is a transitional fuel.” That is nice, but this must be the longest transition ever, and here is why this kind of reply makes no sense:

If you care to read even the mainstream press, after the latest IPCC Report in November, there is no doubt in the scientific world that we are well into an irreversible tipping point. This morning Britain’s Met Office, which has been studying climate and weather since 1854, pointed out that by 2023 there is a 10% chance that we may experience what the climate will look and feel like above 1.5.

In other words, we will inevitably and increasingly be seeing the kinds of climate conditions to be expected by 2100, every decade from now on, even if we take steps in the next five years to move to alternatives now.

There have been calls to transition away from oil since at least 1972. Since 1992, climate scenarios have pointed to a need to transition away from fossil fuels promptly. To talk of transitioning now with natural gas is really to be completely out of touch with a deteriorating situation that is rapidly accelerating.

One needs to remain hopeful. As the Met Office article indicates, it is a game of averages. There will now be good years and bad years until the badextreme becomes the norm. The hope now is to push politicians to have the courage to work for an average of good years so we don’t get to an average of bad years. If we can maintain an average of good years we can work to restore the damage of the bad years, and stabilize our climate.

The fate of the Great Barrier reef can serve as a model. At first, over the last two decades, we faced occasional limited coral die-backs. Those were occasional bad years. Ten years ago we developed techniques to repair the damage, “re-seed” dead zones and monitor them. That opportunity is now slipping away as the ocean continues to warm. The IPCC forecasts that the Great Barrier reef will be essentially gone by 2050 or 2030.

The point of no return is not when you experience a disaster or bad year. It is not the magnitude of a disaster that really matters. It is the frequency of the temporal framework of these successive disasters that matters. “No return” is when you can no longer counterbalance damage because it is too frequent to rebound.

There is rational hope, when we see politicians do two essential things that scientists do every day: 1) Recognize the problem, and that it poses a clear and present danger. That is what Daniel Arbour’s comment effectively did. 2) Ask the right questions to discuss the appropriateness of a technology and its long-term impact. That what the others did.

What I saw the four new councillors and directors do is cause for genuine hope, if we are to manage climate change for good average years in a rapidly evolving new abnormal. They are to be congratulated for a job well-done.

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital