Opposition to Woodfibre LNG heats up in Squamish

April 10, 2015

Opposition to the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant is escalating in Squamish and Howe Sound, where a protest — not the first — involving hundreds of opponents marched through downtown Squamish Sunday venting their rage at the plan.

Although the plant’s supporters value the project’s potential tax base and promised jobs, critics believe the future of Squamish — recently cited as one of just two Canadian destinations in the New York Times’s list of 52 best places in the world to visit in 2015 — is largely in tourism and outdoor recreation, and that Woodfibre LNG’s alleged negative environmental impacts don’t square with that.

The issue has the potential to divide the Squamish First Nation, after individual members helped organize Sunday’s protest march despite the band not yet taking an official position.

As well, critics are angry that by backing Woodfibre LNG, B.C. is cozying up to Indonesian billionaire Sukanto Tanoto, considered by many to be one of the planet’s worst environmental plunderers after his logging company, APRIL, cut down swaths of Indonesia’s rainforests, destroying wildlife habitat and inflicting a heavy toll on indigenous peoples.

Critics say that Tanoto — whose holding company Raja Garuda Mas International (also known as Royal Golden Eagle) owns Pacific Oil and Gas Ltd., of which Woodfibre LNG is a subsidiary — would not be a good neighbour and associating with him sends the wrong message about Squamish’s direction.

An article in the Jakarta (Indonesia) Post last year said that a palm oil conglomerate owned by Tanoto found guilty of tax evasion in 2012 agreed to pay over $200 million (US) in fines.

“His company is the leading driver of deforestation in Indonesian peatlands,” said Shane Moffatt, a Toronto-based forest campaigner for Greenpeace, in 2013 interview with Postmedia News. “Recent government data shows 60 per cent of the fibre supply to his main pulp mill is actually rainforest wood. Promises of conservation have not been kept.”

The rise of Squamish’s tourism-based economy is evident most spring or summer days, when hundreds of mountain bikers and hikers — many from Colorado, Oregon, California and other U.S. and Canadian locales — utilize the community’s huge trail network, kite-boarders catch a strong Howe Sound breeze, and tourists flock to the new Sea to Sky Gondola to take in spectacular Howe Sound views and hike previously inaccessible trails.

My Sea to Sky, a grassroots group formed in opposition to Woodfibre LNG, believes the plant will increase air pollution and hurt the town’s reputation as an outdoor recreation mecca.

“We need to ask whether this (Tanoto) is who we want to welcome to Squamish as our new neighbour,” said Squamish resident and My Sea to Sky co-founder Tracey Saxby. “You have to question as well, when you have somebody who doesn’t necessarily have the same ethics or morals you’d like to see in a good neighbour, how does that filter down in the company that he owns? It really comes down to a question of trust and do we trust that Woodfibre LNG is going to do the right thing. And I think the answer to that is that most people don’t.

“We’re not anti-industry, I want to make that perfectly clear,” Saxby said. “But Squamish has really diversified since the pulp mill shut down (in 2006). We’ve got two universities, brand new tourism infrastructure and StartUp Squamish, which is focused on bringing innovative entrepreneurs into town. There’s all these other industries and businesses that have located here, the rec-tech industry, knowledge-based industries and all these people have relocated to Squamish on the promise that we are this fantastic outdoor recreational town.

“What Woodfibre LNG will do is threaten all of that because it changes us back into a community where we’re going to be suffering environmental pollution.”

However, Woodfibre LNG vice-president of corporate affairs Byng Giraud maintains the project is a good fit and would provide 100 long-term jobs and 300 construction jobs. The company has also committed to using electricity to power cooling compressors for the $1.6-billion plant as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent.

“Our understanding is that there’s a lot more variety of opinions than expressed in one single protest,” said Giraud, who believes many of Sunday’s protesters were bused in from elsewhere. “We definitely have a lot of support in the community and elsewhere.”

Asked about Tanoto’s environmental reputation, Giraud replied: “When you come (to B.C.) you have to follow the rules, regulations and conditions imposed by our regulatory regime.”

Squamish resident Craig McConnell, a supplier of engineering services who supports Woodfibre LNG, believes the project would diversify Squamish’s economy and create a new skill set for young people.

Squamish council, which has been largely cool to Woodfibre LNG, recently rejected an application by B.C. utility provider FortisBC to study the feasibility for a natural gas export pipeline by drilling five holes in the Squamish estuary.

FortisBC filed a court petition against the decision, but council passed a revised motion Tuesday allowing FortisBC to reapply for a testing permit for just two boreholes.

Woodfibre LNG is still under review by B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office, Natural Gas Development Minister Rich Coleman said in a statement Wednesday.