Metro Vancouver defers vote to oppose LNG plant expansion

FortisBC claimed Metro staff submitted an inaccurate and imbalanced report recommending Metro Vancouver oppose the Tilbury LNG expansion plant in Delta, B.C.

The Tilbury LNG Phase Two Expansion Project, currently under review, is expected to lead to a 10-fold increase in its capacity to produce LNG. | Submitted by FortisBC

Metro Vancouver’s board of directors moved to defer a vote on the future of a liquefied natural gas facility proposed to be built on the shore of the Fraser River. 

The delay comes after Metro Vancouver’s Climate Action Committee recommended the board oppose the Tilbury phase two LNG expansion project and an associated jetty earlier this month, citing “upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions and inconsistency with Metro Vancouver’s climate targets.”

The $3-billion Tilbury LNG Phase Two Expansion Project would lead to a 10-fold increase in its capacity to produce LNG. 

FortisBC, which runs the Delta facility, says it needs to expand LNG capacity to feed an international market, supply gas to the shipping industry — including BC Ferries — and offer a backup to Metro Vancouver residents during cold snaps in the event of a gas line disruption as seen in 2019.

The company says the expansion project would support 6,000 full-time construction jobs and 110 full-time operations jobs to keep the plant running.

But critics say boosting Tilbury’s capacity threatens to throw more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and poses a number of direct risks to human health, such as the potential for a catastrophic fire in a densely populated urban area.

“If a vessel blows up, then all of Steveston disappears,” said Richmond councillor Harold Steves of the seashore village Friday. “That's a bit of a concern.”

The controversial project has provoked a number of local governments — including the cities of Vancouver, Port Moody and Richmond — to declare their official opposition to the plant expansion. The City of Delta has yet to take a position on the project.

The marine jetty project, which would serve as a docking facility for refuelling and loading LNG transport vessels, is two weeks away from the end of the provincially run environmental assessment review. Federal and provincial ministers will then have 45 days to reject, approve or order more assessments of the project.

A decision on the Tilbury LNG expansion project, meanwhile, isn’t expected until late 2023 to early 2024.

Emissions kept off the books

In opposing the project, the Metro staff report points to the limited scope of the provincial environmental assessment process, especially when it comes to its exclusion of upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions. 

LNG is essentially super-cooled liquefied methane. When that methane leaks into the atmosphere — during production, transportation or storage — it produces a warming effect roughly 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Metro staff estimate yearly operations of the facility would release 15,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. But if upstream and downstream emissions are counted, that figure rises to over 11 million tonnes of emissions per year, more than 733 times higher. 

Upstream emissions include things like fugitive emissions from fracking and transportation, and could climb as high as 2.2 million tonnes of carbon per year, , according to the staff report. That would account for as much as 29 per cent of B.C.’s 2030 oil and gas sector emissions target.

FortisBC claims that LNG will act as an important intermediary fuel that burns cleaner than oil and can be used to power electricity plants and the hard-to-decarbonize shipping industry. 

But Metro staff noted there is “significant uncertainty” in the climate benefits of LNG. In the worst-case scenario, it could make things worse, they said. 

“Leading global organizations, such as the IPCC, IEA, and the World Bank, note that LNG plays a limited role in a net-zero future and that expansion of LNG infrastructure carries considerable risk with respect to locking in GHG emissions,” wrote Metro staff in a recommendation to the Climate Action Committee July 13.

FortisBC claims Metro staff gave board inaccurate and ‘imbalanced’ information

Representatives from FortisBC told the board Friday that Metro staff made a number of errors in assessing the emissions associated with the Tilbury LNG expansion project. 

“FortisBC believes the information being provided to the Board by staff is imbalanced and does not represent the projects accurately,” wrote Doug Slater, FortisBC’s vice-president of external and Indigenous relations, in a letter in the lead-up to the board meeting. 

Andrew Hamilton, FortisBC’s senior project manager on the Tilbury gas projects, told the board that Metro staff neglected to account for the positive effect the plant would have on local air quality. 

He also pointed to how the project aligns with the province’s CleanBC Roadmap and the federal transport minister’s mandate letter calling for the conversion of ships from heavy bunker fuel to “environmentally friendly fuels like LNG.”

Metro’s staff report “understates the role of LNG will play in the decarbonization of the marine sector,” Hamilton added.

Of the roughly 80,000 registered ships in the world, those that are powered by LNG number in the hundreds, though some expect that could climb to 1,000 vessels globally by 2030.

“It does appear to me that the Metro Vancouver staff utilize different data sources than Fortis and our consultants have used in the development of our reports.” said Hamilton. 

“Tilbury is powered by renewable hydroelectricity, and it's designed to be one of the cleanest LNG facilities in the world.”  

Directors push back against FortisBC claims

A number of directors pushed back against FortisBC’s claims. 

When Metro director and Vancouver City Councillor Christine Boyle asked if FortisBC has calculated upstream emissions in its plans for the facility, Hamilton said the use of renewable gas has complicated that calculation and that they are still working on it. 

Only about one per cent of its current gas supply was renewable, FortisBC's Jason Wolfe told CBC News in January.

Director Jen McCutcheon of Electoral Area A questioned Hamilton over how much fuel would be exported through an expanded terminal and how much would be reserved for local consumption.

Hamilton couldn’t give a definitive answer, citing changing market conditions, but did say the Port of Vancouver's forecasted demand for LNG suggests a “sizable portion” could go to the local market.

In opposing the Tilbury project, Metro director and Vancouver councillor Adriane Carr said the region has the responsibility to reserve renewable natural gas for B.C.’s trucking sector, one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases in the province and an industry that’s notoriously hard to decarbonize.  

Carr made a plea to listen to the science.

“We are at the eleventh hour in terms of mitigating climate change and the scientists are imploring politicians to very rapidly phase out our use of fossil fuels,” she said. “Expanding fossil fuel infrastructure is not the way to go.”

Other directors, however, called for the board to wait until the environmental review process released more information. 

When called on, Metro director of air quality and climate change Roger Quan said, unlike the jetty project, federal regulators require the environmental review process for the Tilbury expansion to include upstream emissions. Downstream emissions, however, will still be left out of the process, he said. 

In the end, Delta Mayor George Harvie called on the Metro Vancouver board not to take a stand on the project until after the environmental review process plays out.

Harvie successfully submitted a motion to refer the Tilbury project back to staff until then.