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Environmental Impact of Coastal GasLink Pipeline

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

The Coastal GasLink Pipeline is the center of many recent news stories as Wet’suwet’en people and supporters acting in solidarity defend Wet’suwet’en sovereignty, law, and land. This land is one part of the proposed 675 km pipeline that is planned to stretch approximately from the community of Groundbirch to the proposed export facility near Kitimat in British Columbia (1). In addition to disregard for indigenous rights, the installation and operation of the pipeline are drawing criticism for potential adverse environmental impacts. We took a look here at how Coastal GasLink and their pipeline could harm local and national ecosystems.

The October 2014 Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project Assessment Report, prepared by the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) of British Columbia, outlines the potential environmental impacts of the project. The scope of the project includes up to eight compressor station sites, eighteen construction camps, storage areas and access roads (1). While the potential for a spill associated with the pipeline is low, the pipeline is expected to have significant negative affects on wildlife populations and will increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The Coastal GasLink Pipeline will be transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is natural gas that has been condensed into a liquid state at extremely cold temperatures (about -260°C) (2). LNG is considered non-toxic and has low solubility in water (1). A pipeline accident or malfunction would lead to a leak where pressurized gas containing methane would rapidly enter the atmosphere (1). Therefore, any leak is not expected to have negative impacts on quality of ground or surface water or surrounding land; however, imminent concerns about the impact of a leak include increase in emissions, and the potential for a fire or explosion if an ignition source such as a forest fire came into proximity with the highly pressurized gas (1). The EAO report does not estimate the likelihood of these occurrences.

The report also considered the impacts the project would have on at least twenty-one animals including grizzly bears and western-screech owls. Out of all of the wildlife considered, the Hart Ranges and Telkwa caribou herds are predicted to experience the most significant adverse effects. Both of these herds are considered threatened under federal legislation and are on provincial conservation lists (1). An estimated 129 out of 459 Hart Ranges caribou herds will be affected by the project, and 32% of their functional habitat will be disturbed (1). Telkwa caribou are highly endangered, with only about 20 animals remaining; the pipeline project will jeopardize almost half of it (1). Based on the 2014 federal recovery strategy, almost all of the habitat for both of these herds is considered critical habitat (1). The predicted cumulative impacts of this project on these caribou populations is so negative that federal management and conservation plans for recovering these populations may not be possible (1). Further, the existence of a pipeline to the west coast will inevitably draw more tanker traffic to pick up processed gas. The increased prevalence of tankers may endanger several local whale species, with the orca being most at risk – increased noise, habitat destruction, food source depletion, and contact with boats all harm these whales and reduce population sizes (3).

The Coastal GasLink Pipeline will also increase the effects of climate change by significantly contributing to provincial and federal greenhouse gas emissions. Construction of the project will create some emissions, but the majority will come from operation of the pipeline (1). At full operational capacity the project is estimated to release up to 3.517 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) per year (1) - approximately 5.54% of British Columbia’s, and 0.49% of Canada’s, total GHG emissions from the year 2017 (4). From these figure we can discern that this project will make it difficult for British Columbia and Canada to meet their emissions-reduction targets. Moreover, these figures do not include emissions from the actual burning of this gas at its destination.

In summary, the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline is a major and expansive project in British Columbia. There are many environmental variables with low environmental risk and impact within the October 2014 Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project Assessment Report. However, the negative effects that the project will have on local wildlife and emissions levels are significant in terms of their magnitude and irreversibility. The project will make it difficult for the province and the federal government to keep their promises and targets for both wildlife conservation and emission reductions.

1: Environmental Assessment Office of British Columbia. Coastal GasLink pipeline project assessment report. 2014. Available from https://projects.eao.gov.bc.ca/api/document/58868fd3e036fb0105768772/fetch/Assessment%20Report%20and%20Appendices%20for%20the%20CGL%20Project%20dated%20October%202014..pdf

2: Natural Resources Canada. Liquified natural gas. Government of Canada. 2020. Available from https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/energy-sources-distribution/natural-gas/liquefied-natural-gas/5679

3. Bakx K. Trans Mountain oil tankers aren't the only thing endangering whales on the West Coast. CBC News, 2020. Available from https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/tmx-killer-whale-marine-traffic-1.5294445

4: Provincial greenhouse gas emissions inventory. Government of British Columbia. 2019. Available from https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/climate-change/data/provincial-inventory

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