Natural Gas Pipeline Proposed for Vancouver Island

Pipelines and Co Gen frame the future of energy on Vancouver Island, but its time for a serious national discussion about greenhouse gases. The Georgia Strait Crossing isn't a Done Deal yet.

by Arthur Caldicott

The Georgia Strait Crossing is a proposal to construct a pipeline to bring natural gas to Vancouver Island from "the mainland" – the continental part of southwestern British Columbia.

Strong expressions of concern and opposition to the proposal are coming from farmers, residents and communities along the pipeline route, and from environmental groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation and Georgia Strait Alliance. There has been no vocal public support for the pipeline, and the arguments against its construction and intent should ensure that the proposal not get past the review stage.

If however, the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) and US Federal Energy Review Commission approve the applications, the proponents hope to have the pipeline completed by 2002.

The pipeline will bring Canadian gas from the Canada/US border between British Columbia and Washington at Huntington/Sumas. The pipe will run in an existing pipeline corridor west across Whatcom County in northern Washington to Cherry Point, where it will slip into the sea in San Juan County, run across the sea bed of the Strait of Georgia back into Canada in the Gulf Islands. It lands at Cobble Hill, on Vancouver Island, where it will connect to another pipeline which runs north and south on the island.

The Georgia Strait Crossing proposal is the object of a lot more public attention, public criticism, and citizen anger, than most of the pipelines which have been built to-date around the continent. People are riled. And certainly the NEB and the project proponents, BC Hydro and the American company, Williams Pipe line Co., have taken notice. Politicians at the federal and provincial level, however, are in hiding. They're caught in a trap – between the vested interests who fund them, and the people who vote for them.

Resistance to Pipelines

North America is criss-crossed with pipelines, carrying oil, liquid gas, and natural gas, some 40-to-50 years old.

But recently we have become deluged with issues related, not just to pipelines, but with what they transport, and with the polluting and greenhouse gas outputs of burning hydrocarbons.

For example, in Washington State last June, a gas pipeline in a Bellingham park exploded in a ball of fire, killing three people.1 This June, the state of New Jersey, responding to a public outcry, filed an appeal against a Federal Energy Review Commission decision to allow Transco, a Williams Pipeline subsidiary, to extend an existing natural gas pipeline.

Pipelines alienate farmland from many otherwise normal uses, reducing the utility of the land, and its value.

But more importantly, as pipelines age, they wear out. The rate of leaks, ruptures, explosions, as well as the cost of maintenance, skyrockets. The Georgia Strait Crossing, and other natural gas pipelines today, are expected to have a useful life of forty years. The safety and environ-mental criteria these new pipelines meet is relatively easy when the pipe is new. After a few years, the challenge and costs of continued adherence to standards skyrockets.

On average, every year, 18 people die, 82 people are injured, and there are 134 pipeline incidents, in the United States. The argument that pipelines are safe is specious.2

Earthquakes are easily the most frightening of the natural hazards that a Georgia Strait Crossing pipeline faces. A major earthquake is inevitable in the area. So of course this contingency has been planned for in the Georgia Strait Crossing design, right? Now it gets really scary, folks. The Board of County Commissioners of San Juan County (where the pipe will run under the Strait of Georgia) received a report of a meeting with Williams Pipeline representatives:

The company was also not aware that the area is subject to earthquake activity, not aware that the area was nominated for Marine Sanctuary status. They were asked what safety precautions they were going to put in place being that a natural gas pipeline would be installed next to an oil refinery. They stated that they hadn't thought about that.3

Oh, yes, about that Marine Sanctuary status.

Orca Pass is an initiative of the Georgia Strait Alliance in Canada, and Friends of Puget Sound in the United States, to have an adjoining section of the Strait of Georgia declared a marine protected area. The local political entities for these areas – the Islands Trust in the Gulf Islands, and Board of County Commissioners in San Juan County – have a compatible and overlapping initiative to have the area declared a Marine Protected Area. The Georgia Strait Crossing is slated to run right through it on both sides of the border.

Greenhouse gases

The major concern with pipelines is not so much with the pipe itself. The big concern is with greenhouse gases (GHG), which are directly responsible for global warming.

British Columbia generates virtually no GHGs in the production of electricity. Blessed by powerful rivers and inheritors of environmentally awful decisions of the past to dam many of them, the province has an abundant hydroelectric supply, and in fact a surplus to today's needs.

But future electricity in BC is to be provided by burning natural gas in co-generation plants, which will completely change BC's GHG emissions.

Co-generation plants for Vancouver Island

Co-generation plants burn natural gas or some other fuel, and the intended outputs are electricity and steam. The undesirable outputs are mainly toxic by-products of combustion. These plants are typically located in areas that have pulp and paper mills that can use the steam.

Three co-gens are planned for Vancouver Island, adding up to nearly 1000 MW of electricity, and 4 million tonnes of GHGs annually. All of these are to be fed by the Georgia Strait Crossing.

The first co-gen, Island Co-generation in Campbell River, is a 240 MW facility, owned by Westcoast Energy. Westcoast Energy also owns the pipe that the Georgia Strait Crossing gets its gas from at Huntington/Sumas. It also owns Centra Gas, which owns the pipeline the Georgia Strait Crossing will connect to in Cobble Hill. And through Centra Gas, it owns the existing pipeline link from the mainland to Vancouver Island. Island Co-gen is due to start operation in the fall of 2000.

Another 240 MW plant in Port Alberni is likely to come online by 2004. At the moment, Hydro is secretive about negotiations to own and build this plant.

The third is a massive 660 MW plant. Suspicion is that Hydro wants this plant in the Duncan area, and the expected year of completion is 2007. Hydro has been at its most secretive about this plant, including the location.

BC Hydro's strategy

In the mid-1990s, BC Hydro developed its strategy for meeting future demand for electricity. It is a strategy that was formulated in intimate collusion with Hydro's political master – the provincial government. The strategy has been most recently re-articulated in Hydro's Integrated Electricity Plan (IEP), which was published by Hydro in June, 2000. 4

That strategy has three fundamental components:

1. It is a deregulation strategy with private enterprise.

Until now, Hydro has had the electricity business to itself, as a monopoly. But there is a powerful lobby of private corporations in the oil and gas business, in the pipeline business, and in generating electricity from burning hydrocarbons. This lobby found a warm welcome for their deep purses, in a provincial government foundering in debt and failing fortunes, and desperate for a promising source of revenue. The strategy means that the public purse (Hydro) no longer has to come up with the capital to build facilities. But the hidden fiscal down side is provincial servitude to corporate whim and unpredictable market prices.

2. It is a lowest-cost strategy.

Told by their political masters that "lowest cost" was to be the mantra of their mandate, BC Hydro now trundles out the argument that natural gas is the lowest-cost solution for electricity production. Given that massive hydroelectric is not an option, Hydro is working with mid-1990s gas prices and projections. Alternative technologies weren't on the map at that time. By 2000, the picture has reversed itself. Gas prices are already nearly twice what Hydro expects to pay for gas as far out as 2007. 5 The price of electricity generated by alternative technologies, specifically wind, is now close to that of gas. That's without factoring in the environmental costs and risks, or considering that the price of gas will continue to rise as the supply declines, and wind will continue to be free forever. But BC Hydro is saddled with the "lowest cost" burden from disgraced premier Glen Clark's government.

3. It is an explicit natural gas strategy.

There is no place in the strategy to evaluate different technologies or ways to obtain electricity from other sources. Everywhere in BC, new electricity is now to be generated by natural gas. Without ever stating that they were doing so, the provincial government shifted the de facto monopoly from Hydro to the natural gas, pipeline, and co-generation businesses.

Vancouver Island and electricity

The gas from the Georgia Strait Crossing is going to generate electricity on Vancouver Island, to meet future demand. An examination of BC Hydro's own graph of this future demand shows that actual use has been essentially level for the past ten years on the island.6 The growth they project is simply a line on the graph – it has no continuity from the trend of previous years, no demographic argument to support it.

Electricity on Vancouver Island is currently supplied by a high voltage direct current cable (HVDC). This cable is nearly at the end of its useful life. The obvious solution is to replace this cable. Hydro does not want to do this, but their technical arguments are vague (or possibly vaguely understood by this writer). The main reason is buried in the IEP strategy of using natural gas and bringing private enterprise into the mix.

As for alternative technologies, BC Hydro is struggling to take them seriously. In Denmark and Germany, wind has become the primary technology for new electricity generation. There it is regarded as a rapidly maturing technology, and is priced nearly on a par with natural gas.

Vancouver Island is at an opportune crossroads. This is the right time and the right place for a major adventure into progressive technologies for electricity generation. The island has winds and tides and sunshine. Traditional resource extraction industries cannot continue to perform as they have in the past. Salmon stocks are perilously close to depletion and forestry is in crisis.

The island does not want co-gen, and does not want pipelines. It's time to march into the 21st century, and make Vancouver Island a global showcase for the right way to generate and consume electricity.

The approval process

The Georgia Strait Crossing project cannot proceed without undergoing an Environmental Assessment under the authorization of the National Energy Board. In an Environmental Assessment, the NEB follows Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency regulations. As well, the NEB is acting on behalf of the BC Environmental Assessment Office and the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans who have handed over their authority to the NEB in a Memorandum of Understanding.

First, the NEB will define what will be included in the Environmental Assessment. This is called "scoping," and a number of things are already included. Check the website for the "Scoping Package." For example, if you believe greenhouse gases from the gas that is transported through the pipe, must be considered in the Environmental Assessment, (they are not), you must advise the NEB of this. If you think the earthquake risk is likely to be overlooked, and that the pipeline should not be built, you must write the NEB: and you have only until August 28, 2000 to make a submission on scoping.

Second, the NEB authorizes the project proponents, Hydro and Williams Pipeline, to conduct the Environmental Assessment. This will happen sometime not long after August 28. A set of dates will be published with the authorization, including dates on which the Environmental Assessment documents will be made available to the public, and dates on which written and oral submissions can be made to the NEB on the Environmental Assessment results. But note, you cannot bring in something new – your only chance to do that is right now, before August 28.

After these two steps, which could end late this year, one of two things will happen. If the Environmental Assessment does not satisfy the requirements of the government agencies, NEB will refer the issue back to the project proponents for revision. The NEB's objective is not to stop projects; rather, they work with applicants to ensure that projects adhere to regulations and follow documented processes.

Eventually, the Environmental Assessment is complete, and the NEB then refers it to the Federal Minister (of Natural Resources) with a recommendation. This step almost always results in a rubber stamp endorsement from the Minister. About the only way this would vary, or the minister might reject the project, is if the political consequences of approving the project were unacceptable to the government.

What you can do now: Write the NEB about the scope of the environmental assessment: Michel L. Mantha, Secretary, National Energy Board,444 Seventh Avenue SW, Calgary, Alberta T2P 0X8; fax: (403)292-5503


1. The Bellingham fire occurred at a liquid gas pipeline, not natural gas. Liquid gas is heavier than air, and pools on the ground before evaporating; natural gas evaporates immediately. Regardless what they carry, pipeline contents are all highly combustible, explosive and toxic.

2. US Federal Dept of Pipeline Safety, Incident Summary 1986-1999, In these 14 years, there were 1885 incidents, 1151 injuries, and 255 fatalities.

3. San Juan County Board of County Commissioners, minutes of the meeting of November 19, 1999.

4. BC Hydro makes the Integrated Electricity Plan available online, at, and by mail.

5. BC Hydro, Letter to Guy Dauncey from Nadine Cahan, June 23, 2000, "Re. the assumed price for natural gas in 2007: the forecast gas price at Sumas in 2007 is approximately $2.00 US per MMBtu in 1999 dollars."

6. BC Hydro, supplied by Steve Miller in a presentation at Shawnigan Lake in March,2000.

* Links: Lots of information and links at: SqWALK!
* See also: BC Hydro:; Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency:; National Energy Board GSX File:

[From WS August/September 2000]

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