In the run-up to the May 2013 provincial election in British Columbia, Premier Christy Clark announced an optimistic new economic plan. One of the major planks in her platform was the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Asia. Clark called it “the opportunity of a lifetime,” one that would make it possible to sell Canada’s natural gas in Asia at a price five times higher than it would fetch in North America. According to Clark,  this development will amount to “over $100 billion over 30 years, $4 to $8 billion in new revenue every year.”

Clark was capitalizing on a global rise in natural gas exploration and extraction. In recent years, new and enhanced technologies have allowed the extraction of natural gas from places where it was previously inaccessible. This has unleashed a bonanza of unconventional gas reserves like shale gas and opened the door to entirely new potential sources like methane hydrates. According to Energy BC, natural gas also has less environmental impact than oil, emitting 30 percent less carbon dioxide when burned.

LNG is created when natural gas is cooled to -162 C, making it a clear, colourless and non-toxic liquid. The process shrinks the volume of the gas by 600 times, allowing easy storage and shipping to energy-hungry places like Asia. Not surprisingly, there are more than 20 proposals for LNG export projects along the BC coast. But in the rush to get LNG terminals built, are government regulators taking into account all possible risks? Among those with a vested interest in that question is Wade Davis, the National Geographic Society’s explorer-in-residence, ethnobotanist and University of British Columbia anthropology professor.

Davis lives on Bowen Island near the planned Woodfibre LNG Ltd. export terminal near Squamish in the fjord of Howe Sound, about 65 kilometres north of Vancouver. The BC government granted environmental approval last October to Woodfibre, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Pacific Oil & Gas.

If the project goes ahead, Bowen Island will be within sight of the 300-metre-long LNG tankers that would ply the channels. Davis specifically worries about the potential of a “vapour dispersion event” — an LNG spill over water that creates a cloud of natural gas.  

Compared to other hydrocarbons, LNG has some advantages when it comes to safety. For example, unlike oil, an LNG spill does not create a slick that can coat coastlines and affect local wildlife for years to come. Instead, the liquid evaporates into a gas cloud that, in time, simply disperses into the atmosphere. Moreover, natural gas is almost exclusively non-toxic methane, in sharp contrast to the complex mix of organic chemicals and heavy metals found in oil, bitumen and other fossil fuels.

However, there are certain conditions under which natural gas can become far more destructive than its chemical cousins due to its extreme flammability. If the mix of air and natural gas is just right, a single spark can set off a devastating fire. If the concentration of gas in air is below five percent, it’s too dispersed to catch fire. If the concentration is above 15 percent, there isn’t enough oxygen in the mix to sustain the fire. But given that just-released LNG is initially very cold and thus more dense than air, it tends to form a cloud that can hug the ground and possibly give rise to just these sorts of conditions. That likelihood increases in areas where geography forms a natural basin to contain such a cloud, which is precisely the topography that makes much of the BC coastline so breathtaking.

Mechanical arms, equipped with automatic safety shut-off valves, are used to load liquefied natural gas onto LNG tankers.

Mechanical arms, equipped with automatic safety shut-off valves, are used to load liquefied natural gas onto LNG tankers. Photo credit: Center For Liquefied Natural Gas (CLNG) 

Davis’ concerns are backed up by a 2004 report — updated in 2011 and 2012 — by Sandia National Laboratories, a contractor for the US Department of Energy (DOE) that undertakes science and technology research to mitigate security issues and threats. Some experts consider the Sandia reports to be seminal assessments of the risks posed by either accidental or possibly malicious events that could affect LNG tankers. He fears that government regulators are ignoring the reports’ recommendations in the rush to get at least one LNG export terminal built on the West Coast. “In an age of terrorist attacks,” says Davis, “you have to consider both the most dire accidental possibility and the most dire deliberate act of sabotage.”

LNG industry officials and some scientists counter that the chemical characteristics of LNG make tanker spills — especially major ones — unlikely. Jean-Paul Lacoursière, associate professor of chemical engineering at the L’Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, helped develop Canada’s standards for LNG facilities. Lacoursière says that there is little likelihood of such a catastrophic event since LNG is not under pressure, nor is it explosive or immediately flammable if released. Furthermore, Lacoursière adds, the risk of a major tanker breach and large vapour cloud drifting to a nearby populated area is low and hasn’t happened in more than 50 years of LNG shipping. “That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen,” he notes.

Tankers today are built for safety. Thanks to LNG tankers’ segregated cargo holds and thick double-hulls, there has never been an LNG spill from the few shipping accidents that have occurred. Nevertheless, Jerry Havens, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas, has warned regulators for several years about discounting the potential for a significant spill with a large vapour cloud. A terrorist attack on an LNG tanker near shore “could have the potential to put people in harm’s way to a distance of approximately three miles [4.8 kilometres] from the ship,” Havens says. 

Eoin Finn, who has a PhD in chemistry, is a summer resident of Howe Sound’s Bowyer Island, just east of Bowen Island. Finn says that if an LNG tanker does have a serious spill in the channels, a vapour cloud would have to drift about 1.5 kilometres or less to reach populated areas of Bowen and West Vancouver. Sparked by an ignition source onshore, the cloud would erupt in a fireball. “There are places to locate these LNG facilities and there are places not to,” Finn says.

The Society of International Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators (SIGTTO) is the world authority on LNG terminal siting standards. SIGTTO stipulates that “any risk of catastrophic LNG release is unacceptable.” To that end, SIGTTO standards state that LNG ports must be located where vapours from a spill or release cannot affect civilians and where the ports don’t conflict with other waterway users. “Long, narrow inland waterways are to be avoided, due to greater navigation risk.” LNG tankers visiting Woodfibre’s LNG terminal would need to travel about 40 kilometres through Howe Sound channels to reach the facility. (Each tanker would be accompanied by three escort tugs.)

Jennifer Siddon, senior manager, corporate communications for Woodfibre LNG, insists the project complies with SIGTTO standards and that Howe Sound and the company’s LNG site “are well suited for a liquefied natural gas facility.” The terminal site is seven kilometres from downtown Squamish, has a deepwater port and is located on a well-established shipping lane, Siddon wrote in an email.  “Howe Sound is not considered a narrow waterway by national or international guidelines,” Siddon said. 

One of the world’s experts on the risks and consequences of spills from LNG tankers is Michael Hightower, a civil engineer with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM and an author of the Sandia reports. Hightower says that an LNG tanker in inshore waters should be travelling at restricted speeds, so even if it accidentally collided with another ship or ran aground, it’s not likely to seriously damage the tanker. A terrorist attack could cause a serious tanker breach and release of LNG, he says. But terrorists would likely use some sort of explosive, so the LNG would be ignited immediately, causing a large fire near the tanker. However, if a major LNG release wasn’t ignited, a wind could carry the ensuing vapour cloud for a kilometre or more to nearby populated areas, Hightower says.

To prevent that worst-case scenario in the US, the national Coast Guard requires LNG proponents to do a “waterway suitability study” examining the transit of LNG tankers from eight kilometres offshore while identifying the hazards of a spill along the route. The Sandia reports recommend safety zones of 500 metres on either side of a transiting tanker as well as hazards zones protecting the public that extend for 1.6 kilometres up to 3.5 kilometres on either side. In comparison, tankers transiting Howe Sound to Woodfibre’s terminal will have safety zones of 50 metres on either side of the ships and up to 500 metres in front. 

Transport Canada, through its Technical Review Process of Marine Terminal Systems and Transshipment Sites (TERMPOL), reviews all issues related to the safety of navigation along the proposed shipping routes to and from a proposed LNG marine terminal. TERMPOL is a voluntary process for LNG proponents, but “its results may be taken into account before issuing a permit to the company,” Jillian Glover, regional communications adviser for Transport Canada, wrote in an email. She added that Transport Canada “does not endorse or recommend the use of SIGTTO and/or Sandia Labs guidelines” but supports the use of best practices and safety procedures employed by industry and industry organizations. Woodfibre LNG is currently going through the TERMPOL process and says it will follow any recommendations. 

At an LNG terminal, the liquefaction plant chills natural gas to -162 C, creating a liquid 600 times smaller by volume than the same amount of gas.

At an LNG terminal, the liquefaction plant chills natural gas to -162 C, creating a liquid 600 times smaller by volume than the same amount of gas. Photo credit: Center For Liquefied Natural Gas (CLNG) 

Hightower cautions regulators to carefully assess, using site-specific conditions such as local winds and topography, how LNG tankers would transit through Howe Sound to ensure the nearby public is protected.  “It’s less than a mile wide [in some places] which means, by definition, that if there is a spill,you could have potential impacts if there were people on shore,” Hightower says.

Vancouver lawyer William J. Andrews, representing the My Sea to Sky citizens’ group, wrote to Ottawa’s then-environment minister Leona Aglukkaq last April to argue that by not using any form of “zone of concern” analysis, BC’s environmental review of the Woodfibre LNG project is “failing to address the well-documented risk of catastrophic effects of an LNG spill due to an accident or malfunction regarding LNG shipping in Howe Sound.” The 500-metre zone recommended by Sandia Labs intersects the heavily utilized channel between the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal and Bowen Island, Andrews says. The 1.6-kilometre zone takes in a segment of the Sea to Sky Highway, Furry Creek, Porteau Cove Provincial Park campsite, Bowyer Island and parts of Bowen Island as well as the communities of Horseshoe Bay and West Vancouver. 

Rich Coleman, BC Minister of Natural Gas Development, says the province has strict regulatory guidelines in place for the LNG industry, including detailed requirements for design, construction and operations of terminals. “The Canadian and provincial standards that will be applied to the BC LNG industry will be stringent and as safe, if not safer, than the standards in place for US operations,” Coleman wrote in an email. The BC Oil and Gas Commission says regulations, which apply  to the onshore LNG terminal and infrastructure, require a proponent to model worst-case scenarios for vapour plume dispersion and a fire. Woodfibre LNG says its risk assessments, done by United Kingdom-based Lloyd’s Register Consulting and Abbott Risk Consulting, included modelling for a vapour cloud from a breached LNG tanker, finding it to be an “extremely unlikely scenario.”    

Picturesque Howe Sound attracts humpback whales, orcas and salmon and supports commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism. The District of West Vancouver, Village of Lions Bay, Town of Gibsons, District of Squamish, and Bowen Island Municipality all have passed motions urging a ban on LNG tankers in Howe Sound. Wade Davis supports their position. “If we emulated what the Americans were doing, this Woodfibre LNG project would not happen, not because of the economics or environmental considerations but simply because of security,” Davis says.