Late last month, the Government of British Columbia released its Kitimat Airshed Emissions Effects Assessment. The report examines the air pollution impacts of four proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals and associated gas-fired electrical generation facilities planned for the North Coast city—as well as other proposed and existing industrial projects.
The study investigates how a pair of pollutants—nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide—would impact public health and ecosystems. At nearly 400 pages, it is a daunting piece of work, and an important contribution to the policy debate now underway about North Coast industrial development.
But it only tells part of the story.
In recent days we’ve spent some quality time with the Assessment, and extracted five observations—key facts and omissions that we feel British Columbians need to know, both about the new report and the potential impacts of LNG development in the region.
1. No Safe Level
In even the Assessment’s best-case scenario, increased industrialization in Kitimat means the city’s residents will breathe more polluted air. For example, nitrogen dioxide concentrations are expected to increase by between five and 80 percent, depending on location and how the report authors tallied the emissions. Any increases in emissions increases the chance of asthma attacks and other health risks. This risk cannot be eliminated, since even the best technologies considered in the report lead to increases.
2. Fish Aren’t Fond of Acid
Again, even in the best-case scenario, the report finds that 21 lakes in the region will further acidify—impacting fish, wildlife, and people who enjoy them. As with human health risks, the report doesn’t consider the acceptability of these impacts to North Coast residents.
3. The Best-Case Scenario Requires Leadership on LNG
The Government of British Columbia remains reluctant to mandate the technologies that would create the best-case scenario outlined in the report. For example, the report shows that LNG proponents who maximize their use of renewable electricity will reduce nitrogen-dioxide pollution by 78 percent compared to plants that burn gas. When it comes to reducing air pollution, electric drives running on clean energy are as close as it gets to a “magic bullet.” However, to date government has declined to require them.
4. We’re Not Getting the Full Picture
The Assessment addresses nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, but those are just two of a family of damaging air pollutants that are collectively known as “criteria air contaminants.” If industry proceeds with its proposed gas-fired LNG plants, levels of three other pollutants—particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and carbon monoxide—will also rise. Particulates, for example, exacerbate asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Particulate concentrations in Kitimat exceeded federal and provincial guidelines 22 times between 2011 and 2013 near the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter. Without assessing these air pollutants, it’s impossible to judge what level of industrial air pollution Kitimat’s air can handle.
5. Pollution Breeds Pollution
Once in the atmosphere, air pollutants interact with one another, giving rise to new air pollutants that create smog and particulates. The Assessment does not quantify these so-called secondary pollutants, and so can’t say whether they will cause human health or environmental impacts.
The Assessment represents a good start, but only provides a partial picture of the risks of further industrial development on the North Coast. Given this, the provincial government’s conclusion that “the [Kitimat] airshed can accommodate industrial growth without significantly affecting the health of residents or the environment” seems premature.
The LNG industry would like to develop two large plants on the Kitimat waterfront, each burning as much natural gas in a year as all of Metro Vancouver. This level of fossil-fuel development comes with a real cost.
As outlined above, even the study’s most optimistic scenario still increases risks to human health while acidifying close to two dozen lakes. Further, this lower level of impact may not be realistic because it depends on technologies—such as electric drives in LNG plants—that industry is not currently planning to install, and that government remains reluctant to require.
We need to formulate good policy that will create opportunities on the North Coast without undermining public health and the region’s rich ecosystems. The industry’s current fossil-fuel-heavy approach to development is incompatible with those objectives, and the people of Kitimat deserve a full accounting of the real risks it carries.
So far, at least, that accounting is incomplete.