A ferry protest shows how story of natural gas is being rewritten in B.C. and Canada
|Toronto Star 20 Jan 2020 at 20:29|
VANCOUVER—When liquefied natural gas was still the gleaming fuel of the future, B.C.’s provincial ferry service struck a deal that, at the time, looked both green friendly and financially savvy.
The agreement with the province’s largest energy provider, FortisBC, would give B.C. Ferries $6 million toward building three ferries that could run on natural gas. B.C. Ferries would buy the natural gas the vessels needed from Fortis.
It was 2014, LNG was a cleaner and cheaper fuel than diesel, and the deal was generally viewed as a win-win.
Just how much things have changed was apparent Monday morning, as B.C. Ferries’ highest-traffic route saw two sailings come to a halt, and many more delayed, as protesters showed their support for a natural gas protest 1,000 kilometres away.
It was the latest sign of just how turbulent the once-promising LNG industry in B.C. has become amid concerns over Indigenous rights and the environment.
Central to Monday’s protest was a natural gas pipeline currently under construction in northern British Columbia.
Coastal GasLink is building a 670-kilometre pipeline from British Columbia’s northeast to Kitimat on the coast, which will supply the $40-billion LNG Canada export facility in Kitimat. The company has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nation councils along its path, but hereditary clan chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation, who are leaders under the traditional form of governance, say the project has no authority without their consent and are attempting to block its progress.
Protesters declaring solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en leaders on Monday morning blocked the Swartz Bay ferry terminal near Victoria using kayaks.
“This action has targeted B.C. Ferries because of the corporation’s deepening integration with the LNG industry,” reads a portion of a news release from Monday’s protesters.
“B.C. Ferries has proposed ‘upgrades’ to two of its ferries that will make them reliant on the very product that Coastal GasLink threatens to bring through Wet’suwet’en territory.”
Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, a member of the Gitxsan Nation north of the Wet’suwet’en territory and spokeperson for what he called the “organic” group of protesters, said many of them were motivated by Premier John Horgan’s refusal to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs on a trip to northern B.C. last week.
“For someone like myself to see the relationship between B.C. and a traditional unceded government deteriorate to the point where B.C. won’t even talk is unacceptable,” Sutherland-Wilson said.
While it’s true that B.C. Ferries continues to promote its transitions to natural-gas powered vessels, the company has no direct connections to Coastal GasLink (it gets its natural gas fuel from FortisBC).
The temporary shutdown of ferries between Victoria and Vancouver, B.C. Ferries’ busiest route, showed tensions in the LNG industry in B.C. could spill over and trouble even companies without connections to the central conflict.
“Six years ago, and in the years prior, there was a belief that we would have a lot of LNG export terminals on the West Coast of B.C.,” said Justin Bull, a lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of British Columbia.
“Obviously the level of investment has shifted significantly.”
While there were 19 LNG projects proposed for B.C. prior to 2016, now there is one active project, and three remaining proposed.
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Some of the reason for the decline in interest in LNG is the boom and bust cycle, and the fact that there is surplus LNG being produced elsewhere. Chevron announced just last month that it planned to pull out of the Kitimat LNG project .
There is also renewed debate about LNG’s environmental bona fides.
For years, the notion had been that by selling LNG to coal-burning nations such as China, Canada could help to reduce global emissions targets, at least on paper. Last month, the new federal environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, reportedly told the Globe and Mail there was a long road ahead of the industry if it were to play such a role.
Furthermore, and unique to British Columbia, are the province’s extensive unresolved land claims and legal issues with First Nations.
“At the end of the day, investors love certainty,” Bull said. “It contributes to an investment climate which is not the same as elsewhere, such as on the Gulf Coast of the United States.”
When B.C. Ferries first made the deal to upgrade its vessels to use LNG, the resource became a cornerstone of the company’s environmental iniative. The company now has five vessels that use LNG.
Last April, one of the newly LNG-compatible vessels was unveiled “just in time for Earth Day .”
By Monday, the company’s tone had changed.
“We know that liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a fossil fuel and understand our customers’ desire to eliminate them,” wrote Deborah Marshall, spokesperson for B.C. Ferries in an email to the Star.
“However, adopting LNG is important climate progress and we currently have five LNG-fueled vessels in our fleet that substantially outperform diesel-fueled vessels for emissions and costs.”