A high profile provincial newspaper raised doubts about the credibility of the federal environmental assessment process on Sunday, Nov. 25 with an article claiming that TransCanada’s proposed Coastal GasLink project may not receive that level of regulatory scrutiny.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) issued a call for public comment on the project on Nov. 13 as part of the process of determining the need for a federal environmental assessment of the pipeline that would connect natural gas resources near Dawson Creek to a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility in Kitimat. The article strongly suggested that Coastal GasLink may not undergo a federal environmental assessment as a result, but failed to mention that there is a good chance that an environmental assessment will be completed regardless of the comments the CEAA receives.
“This project came in under our new CEAA 2012 Act,” explained Maxine Leger-Haskell, a spokesperson for the agency.
That is the legislation enacted on July 6, 2012 and designed to improve the efficiency of the regulatory review process for major energy projects.
“This is the first public comment period where, basically, we have… received the project description and we’re looking it over and checking if an environmental assessment is required,” said Leger-Haskell.
“This is on our list… of types of projects that would normally require one.”
That list is the Regulations Designating Physical Activities that indicates what types of projects may warrant an environmental assessment by any one of three federal agencies, including the CEAA. The list includes natural gas pipelines to be built and operated within a wildlife area or migratory bird sanctuary and natural gas pipelines longer than 75 kilometres in length on a new right-of-way.
The proposed Coastal GasLink is projected to be about 650 kilometres in length, although the exact route is not yet certain. The project description issued by TransCanada also notes that the conceptual route would run by one Important Bird Area (IBA), the Fraser Lake IBA, if not directly through that tract of land.
It is unclear at this point if the IBA in question would also be considered a migratory bird sanctuary, but potentially affected wildlife discussed in the project description include the Canada warbler and olive-sided flycatcher, migratory birds that are listed as threatened species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), and the rusty blackbird, a migratory species of special concern under SARA.
A description of the Fraser Lake IBA found on the IBA Canada website mentions that it is important nesting habitat for migratory waterfowl as well as various songbirds.
“That’s the sort of thing that we would be looking at,” said Leger-Haskell.
TransCanada’s project description notes that construction and operation could adversely affect migratory birds during migration or nesting, but that the company is also developing measures to mitigate those impacts.
The conceptual route is also in close proximity to the Burnie River Protected Area, which could be considered a wildlife area in terms of the Regulations Designating Physical Activities list, and crosses the ranges of three caribou herds: Quintette, Hart Ranges and Telkwa.
The Hart Ranges herd, a population of 560 individuals as of 2010, is listed as threatened under SARA.
Those aspects of the project alone could spur a federal environmental assessment regardless of public comments, but they are also the sorts of issues with the project that concern Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch.
“Obviously, crossing water bodies is a big concern,” said Orr.
One such water body is the Stuart River, home to the white sturgeon, an endangered species under SARA.
Orr said that pipelines create corridors similar to those created by transmission lines, a problem that Watershed Watch examined in their study on run-of-river hydro projects, Tamed Rivers.
“We go into quite a bit of detail on transmission line corridor impacts on birds like marbled murrelets and opening up their nests for predation,” said Orr.
“You get these linear disturbances that affect both fish and wildlife, and vegetation as well.”
That seems to be the kind of input the CEAA is hoping to receive through this initial public comment process.
“It really just helps determine… if we’re thinking of everything, if we’re looking at everything, if we have all the information we need,” said Leger-Haskell.
“We want to be transparent and let the public know we’ve got a project description, we’re looking at whether an environmental assessment is required, do you have anything you can contribute to our consideration.”
The new CEAA 2012 Act stipulates that there be a twenty day public comment period when the CEAA is determining if a federal environmental assessment is necessary. The agency has until the first week of January, 2013 to decide if an environmental assessment will be conducted in this case.
The public can submit their comments until Dec. 3, 2012.
“If it’s determined that it’s required, we will have subsequent public comment periods,” said Leger-Haskell.
“Once a federal environmental assessment begins… there will be three additional public comment periods.”
“We’ve commented as an organization on several major projects… around British Columbia,” said Orr, expressing his distrust of the system. “And it’s nice to say that you want them early, but we haven’t seen a lot of those comments make a difference in terms of project sighting and monitoring.
“One of the things that Watershed Watch is pushing for is better planning for all of these projects and not cursory kind of assurances that we get,” he added.
“When the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act got revamped, to use a fairly loose term, I did get a legal briefing on it. And what I can say is there’s just so much discretionary power in what actually goes forward now that the safe bet is to say that most major projects aren’t going to get a review.”
Even if a federal environmental assessment isn’t conducted, TransCanada would have to successfully complete a similar process in B.C. in addition to receiving permits and approvals from the BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) in order to proceed.
Certain aspects of the planning and construction phases would also have to receive approval under the BC Heritage Conservation Act and the federal Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Protection Act.