BC Hydro wants the provincial government to nix an environmental assessment for a new transmission line to power liquefied natural gas, mining and other industries, according to confidential government documents obtained by The Narwhal. 

The documents, released through freedom of information legislation, suggest replacing an environmental assessment for the North Coast transmission line — from Prince George to Terrace — with a speedier “alternative streamlined process.” The vaguely defined process could involve setting conditions to mitigate environmental impacts, but it is not clear what those would be or if the process would be transparent.

An environmental assessment is an independent, rigorous and transparent process that would detail the line’s impacts and propose mitigations where possible. According to a BC Hydro presentation, the transmission line would affect as many as 101 private properties, including agricultural land. It would cut through traplines and woodlots, fall within 200 metres of archeological sites, overlap with designated ungulate winter habitat for moose and cross waterways that include habitat for at-risk white sturgeon.

BC Hydro’s push for an environmental assessment exemption places the North Coast transmission line at the centre of fraught debates about the environmental and social costs of “clean” energy, fossil fuel subsidies, due process and Indigenous Rights.

The $3-billion line — half of which could be paid for by federal taxpayers —  would provide hydro power for a range of industrial customers, including LNG Canada and other liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities, the Port of Prince Rupert, hydrogen projects and new metal and critical minerals mines.

Electricity for the high voltage line would come in part from the publicly funded $16-billion Site C dam project nearing completion on B.C.’s Peace River. 

The $16 billion publicly funded Site C dam on B.C.'s Peace River
The $16-billion, publicly funded Site C dam, nearing completion on the Peace River in northeast B.C., will supply discounted electricity for LNG Canada and other industrial facilities through the $3-billion North Coast transmission line. Photo: BC Hydro

“BC Hydro has expressed that undertaking an environmental assessment for one or more segments of the North Coast transmission line would jeopardize the ability to bring the project into service in the eight-to-10-year timeframe,” says an internal government briefing note, prepared last June for Energy Minister Josie Osborne, the office of Premier David Eby and two other provincial cabinet ministers. 

“BC Hydro suggests that a delay would impact the ability to meet increased demand and electrification.”

The BC NDP government has championed the LNG industry. But the government’s simultaneous commitment to carbon emission reduction targets means most LNG projects can only proceed if facilities that liquefy natural gas for transport are powered with electricity. Critics point to LNG’s large carbon footprint, even if liquefaction facilities are electrified. Natural gas used to produce LNG is extracted from deposits in B.C.’s northeast using a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which produces significant carbon emissions, including from the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 

a map of the proposed North Coast transmission line
The high voltage North Coast transmission line would run from Prince George to Terrace, B.C. According to BC Hydro, it would impact farmland, waterways, at-risk species and up to 101 private property owners. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

In a letter released with the briefing notes, six First Nations leaders — including two from nations which have partnered with oil and gas companies on LNG projects — offer Osborne and other provincial ministers their support in principle for new taxpayer-funded transmission infrastructure. They urge the provincial government to begin talks to expedite renewable energy transmission and generation capacity from Prince George to the coast. The letter, dated June 12, 2023, says the electrification of industrial projects will enable communities to alleviate poverty and pursue economic self-determination.

“Most are considering the prospect of working together and we are hopeful they will decide to do so,” the letter says. “We believe the development of the transmission infrastructure warrants a significant investment by Canadian taxpayers, both B.C. and federally. We are prepared to work with you to secure a federal commitment to this investment in infrastructure to support our collective climate change goals.”

But not all leaders in the northwest agree. Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs are calling for a full greenhouse gas emissions assessment for any LNG projects affecting their territory. The proposed streamlined process for the transmission line is “quite a scary prospect,” according to Tara Marsden, a spokesperson for the chiefs, especially if it lacks transparency, takes shortcuts and doesn’t allow all voices to be heard.

What would skipping environmental assessment mean for North Coast project? 

BC Hydro plans to advance the transmission line in two phases: from Prince George to Glenannan and from Glenannan to Terrace. According to the briefing documents, BC Hydro suggests the first component of the line “may not” trigger an environmental assessment, while the second “is likely” to trigger an assessment. 

An exemption from the environmental assessment process can be granted in one of two ways — through a cabinet regulation or by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. The exemption would be based on a referral to the minister by the chief executive assessment officer of the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, outlining that the project will not have significant adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or health effects or serious effects on a First Nation. An environmental assessment usually takes three to five years.

BC Hydro, responding to questions from The Narwhal, said it is in the early stages of planning for both segments of the transmission line “and our current focus is to review transmission line route options and to identify any environmental permitting and regulatory requirements.”

“We are continuing to engage with the public, First Nations, local and regional governments, and other stakeholders on our plans for expanding and upgrading our system,” Kyle Donaldson, BC Hydro’s media relations and issues management spokesperson, wrote in an email. “This includes seeking feedback on potential transmission line routes. There will be ongoing engagement for the duration of the projects.”

Donaldson did not answer a question asking if BC Hydro is planning to formally request an environmental assessment exemption. He also didn’t respond to a question asking what an “alternative streamlined process” would entail and if the public would have access to the process and its complete findings.

Anna Johnson, staff counsel for West Coast Environmental Law, said it makes sense to skip environmental assessments if you’re a project proponent “and your goal is to get away with something or to pull the wool over the public’s eye.”

“But it doesn’t make sense to skip them if you’re a member of the public and you want to make sure that your public utility stops wasting your hard-earned money on things that wreck the environment.” 

Johnson, whose work focuses on strengthening environmental laws and environmental assessment reform, said assessments identify the potential consequences of building projects that might pollute waterways, hurt wildlife, contribute to climate change or infringe on Indigenous Rights. Assessments also examine claims from project proponents such as BC Hydro about whether projects are needed and what, if any, public benefits will accrue, she said.

“Skipping assessments of big projects, like transmission lines, can increase the risk of making bad or ill-informed decisions,” Johnson said.  

The risk rises when public utilities are proponents because ratepayers and taxpayers are ultimately paying for the projects, she added.

That risk is even more acute with the North Coast transmission line, Johnson said, because the Site C dam which will supply the line with electricity is already costing B.C. ratepayers more than double its original sticker price. The dam, which will flood 128 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries — an area roughly the distance of driving from Vancouver to Whistler — will destroy First Nations hunting and fishing grounds, some of Canada’s best farmland and habitat for more than 100 species at risk of extinction, among many other impacts. 

A view of the Peace River Valley which will be flooded by the Site C dam
Ken and Arlene Boon lost most of their third generation family farm when it was expropriated by the B.C. government for the Site C dam, which will flood 128 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries, about the distance from Vancouver to Whistler. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Ratepayers will begin paying for the debt-funded Site C project after the power comes on-line next year, following geotechnical troubles related to the dam’s weak foundation and in the midst of severe drought in the Peace region, which has significantly curtailed hydro production.

Johnson questioned providing “cheap, publicly subsidized electricity” from the Site C dam to profitable oil and gas companies like Shell, Petronas and PetroChina, which are part of the LNG Canada consortium. 

The North Coast transmission line would also be publicly funded, she pointed out, saying it is problematic BC Hydro “wants to avoid independent oversight of the environmental assessment office and public scrutiny through the assessment process.” 

According to the briefing note for Eby’s office, Osborne and other ministers, the eight-to-10-year time frame to build the transmission line could be reduced “if Indigenous partnerships and regulatory reforms were agreed to in a way that could improve BC Hydro, Indigenous and provincial decision-making related to the project.” The note says engagement with First Nations to understand their views around an exemption and alternative process “will be crucial.”

“Many nations are interested in setting the environmental conditions and guidance for permitting oversight in this co-developed manner,” the note says, using language suggesting First Nations may play a key role in any alternative process.

The note also says First Nations have expressed interest in potential equity ownership in transmission infrastructure and in clean energy opportunities “perceived to be related to the transmission project.” 

The discussions are at an early stage, “and it is not yet known what form these ownership opportunities would take,” the briefing note, which was also sent to Minister of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen and Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin, says. The following section, which includes recommendations, is redacted.

The LNG Canada facility under construction in Kitimat, B.C.
The $3-billion North Coast transmission line would provide discounted power to LNG Canada, in Kitimat, B.C. — a consortium of some of the most profitable oil and gas corporations in the world. Photo: LNG Canada

A section titled “streamlined assessment and regulatory certainty,” is also almost entirely redacted, on the grounds it would reveal advice or recommendations developed by or for a public body or a minister.

A draft schedule for North Coast electrification, ending in the year 2031, is completely redacted for the time period after November 2023.

A timeline of North Coast transmission line documents

A separate July 31 briefing document for Osborne outlines discussions underway with First Nations along the transmission line route about ownership opportunities in the project. 

According to that note, BC Hydro and the province held a meeting with First Nations leadership and advisors on June 1, 2023 to initiate the dialogue. 

The historic impacts of transmission lines, power supply to communities and potential new clean energy opportunities for the nations were also among the topics of discussion. 

An additional meeting was held the following day to discuss First Nations equity ownership options for the first segment of the line, from Prince George to Glenannan. 

At a third meeting, on July 17, a new joint working group was formed to explore transmission and generation options beyond Terrace, according to the briefing note. 

That’s significant because BC Hydro is proposing to extend the North Coast transmission line north from Terrace to supply electricity for Ksi Lisims LNG, a partnership among the Nisg̱a’a Nation, a consortium of Canadian gas producers called Rockies LNG and Texas-based Western LNG. Ksi Lisims LNG is still undergoing an environmental assessment and has not yet officially been approved by the B.C. government. 

“The tone of the meeting was very positive with a desire by nations to form a collective to move the [transmission] project forward,” Osborne’s briefing document states.

Ksi Lisims LNG would be a floating facility at Wil Milit, on the northern tip of Pearse Island near the Nisga’a village of Gingolx. According to the Nisga’a, Ksi Lisims — which, if approved, would be the second largest LNG export project in the province — will provide greater opportunities for economic self-determination and prosperity.

The village of Gingolx, B.C., where the Nisga'a Nation is proposing to build the Ksi Lisims LNG facility
The Nisg̱a’a Nation is proposing to build the Ksi Lisims LNG facility on the northern tip of Pearse Island near the Nisg̱a’a village of Gingolx. If the project is approved, its power would be supplied via the North Coast transmission line, which would be extended north of Terrace, B.C. Photo: Marty Clemens / The Narwhal

Included in the briefing document for Osborne, Cullen, Rankin and Eby’s office is the letter from the “First Nations leaders working group on Northwest renewable energy transmission and generation capacity development.” Six First Nations leaders, including Nisga’a Nation president Eva Clayton and Haisla First Nation chief councillor Crystal Smith, signed the letter (The Cedar LNG facility is a partnership between the Haisla Nation and Pembina Pipelines Corporation.)

The Narwhal reached out to Clayton, who referred us to Alex Grzybowski, the CEO of a new organization called K’uul (coming together as one) Power. According to K’uul Power’s website, the organization aims to promote renewable energy transmission and generation infrastructures and “associated First Nation’s development opportunities between Prince George and the coast.” 

Grzybowski, a conflict resolution and prevention specialist, initially said he was available for an interview but did not respond to subsequent communications. 

‘Big question marks’ about BC Hydro plans

The Ksi Lisims consortium says the electrified project will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030, three years after it begins operating. That claim is challenged by Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, who are calling for the environment assessment process to be paused. 

In an interview, Tara Marsden, Wilp sustainability director for Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, said the chiefs are concerned Ksi Lisims facility could affect salmon that migrate into their territory. The Hereditary Chiefs are also calling for “a proper assessment of all greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts associated with any LNG affecting Gitanyow territory and Gitanyow rights and interests,” Marsden said. 

The Gitanyow, a community of the Gitxsan people whose territory lies to the north of the proposed Ksi Lisims project, were not consulted about the venture and have not been included in any outreach and communication, she said. The Gitanyow have asked the Ksi Lisims consortium for more information “to prove their claims around being a green energy project, being net zero, because our review of their materials provided to the environmental assessment simply don’t indicate that,” Marsden said. 

Tara Marsden, spokesperson for Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, speaks at a press conference
Tara Marsden, Wilp sustainability director for Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs, says the chiefs are concerned an “alternative streamlined process” for the North Coast transmission line — proposed by BC Hydro instead of an environmental assessment — will not be transparent. Photo: Jimmy Jeong / The Narwhal

The Hereditary Chiefs have also asked for a greenhouse gas emission accounting of the power sources for Ksi Lisims. “Their claims of net zero rely almost exclusively on both getting electricity for their terminal and for their shipping, as well as the carbon offsets that they would purchase,” Marsden said. “Both of those are big question marks currently. They don’t have either of those locked in place. And so we don’t know what the impacts of … new hydropower might look like.”

An alternative streamlined process for the North Coast transmission line would mean project approval could be granted “at the whim” of a company, statutory decision-maker or minister, Marsden said. It would also make any potential legal recourse unclear, she said, pointing to judicial reviews over the years for projects that were granted environmental assessment certificates. 

For Marsden, a key consideration is free, prior and informed consent, which is a cornerstone of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In B.C., the declaration was enshrined in law in 2019 through the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

“If we have to get freedom of information requests to find out how consent has been achieved and whose consent, that is not open or transparent and does not build trust that these power projects are in the best interests of Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens alike.”

In an emailed response to questions, the provincial environment ministry said the environmental assessment office has granted 18 projects an exemption over the past decade. They include two large fracking dams in B.C.’s northeast and a drinking water well enhancement project in the municipality of Whistler. The B.C. cabinet does not appear to have granted any exemptions over the past decade. 

The ministry said the “proponent” of the North Coast transmission line has not applied to the environmental assessment office for an exemption. 

Teresa Waddington, vice-president of corporate relations for LNG Canada, said the consortium supports efforts to advance electrification across B.C. 

LNG Canada sees opportunities to lower carbon emissions as electrical infrastructure is further developed, she said in an emailed statement.

“… advancing electrification can benefit northern and Indigenous communities, adding needed infrastructure along the transmission route and in coastal areas, [and] supporting strong and credible foundations for a lower carbon future,” she wrote. 

LNG Canada did not respond to questions asking if the consortium supports an alternative streamlined assessment or if the consortium has asked BC Hydro or the government for one.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers referred all questions to BC Hydro.

Updated on March 5, 2024, at 1:22 pm. PT: This story has been updated to clarify that a decision to exempt a project from environmental assessment is made by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, based on a referral by the chief executive assessment officer of the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, and not by the chief executive assessment officer as previously stated. It has also been updated to clarify the criteria for exemption.

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