Public hearing on Georgia Straight Crossing
By Bob Covey

Peninsula News Review
5 March 2003

Vancouver Island residents will be keeping a close eye on the developments that arise in Sidney for the next four weeks, as the Mary Winspear Cultural Centre plays host to the public hearing that will determine the fate of a controversial $340 million pipeline proposal, the Georgia Straight Crossing Project.

Since the public hearing began on Feb. 24, BC Hydro has been responding to interveners concerns about the project. Eight separate witness panels comprised of delegates from BC Hydro and Williams Ltd, the American company who together with Hydro are proposing the project, are attempting to convince the National Energy Board that the GSX pipeline is necessary.

Ross Hicks, public affairs officer for NEB, said the hearing is a highly legalized process, but attempts are being made to involve the public as much as possible.

Most of the public opposing [the GSX pipeline] aren't lawyers, Hicks said. Theyre not used to appearing in this format.

The NEB and Environment Canada have set up a facilitating panel to mediate the hearings. Comprised of NEB member Elizabeth Quarshie, who is the chair of the panel, Rowland Harrison, also a NEB member, and the Honourable Bryan Williams, retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the panel is listening to how BC Hydro is answering public concerns.

BC Hydro is trying to establish what their American partners in the project have already cemented permission from the national governing body to begin building a system that would stream 94 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from Sumas, Washington to the existing Centra Gas transmission system just west of Shawnigan Lake. This new influx of gas is planned to fuel two up-Island electricity generating plants in Campbell River and possibly Nanaimo.

While Williams Ltd has applied to and received the go-ahead from their regulatory body, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, several organizations on the Canadian side have shown their opposition to the pipeline.

The David Suzuki Foundation has hired lawyer Tim Howard from the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, who is appearing at the public hearing to argue that the project should not go ahead. Gerry Scott, director of the climate change program at the David Suzuki Foundation, said Sierra Legal is raising points on the publics behalf.

Ideally, we will have really strong evidence that this project isnt needed and it isnt in the public interest for the project to proceed, Scott said.

Scott said what BC Hydro has not pursued is a range of alternatives that would deal with the Vancouver Island energy demand namely an increased push to reduce energy consumption.

BC Hydro has said the best and most affordable option is efficiency, Scott said. Efficiency opportunities, which would create excess power by cutting energy use, would cut [energy] costs in half.

Scott said initiatives such as Hydros Power Smart program, which champions energy saving solutions on a home and business level, should be applied on a larger scale so huge operations such as the GSX project arent necessary.

If we can reduce demand, why increase supply? Scott asked.

Elisha Odowichuk, media relations manager for BC Hydro, said Power Smart is only one part of solving Vancouver Islands energy problems.

She said while conservation programs help lessen the demand for power, they are an unreliable solution because reducing energy consumption is a personal life-style choice that individuals make.

Forcing people [to conserve] is an impossible task, Odowichuk said. We need to have the ability to generate as much [energy] as is needed.

She said the GSX project is just another piece of the puzzle that is the operative strategy of BC Hydro. Whereas the GSX project is a resource acquisition plan, the new turbine at Seven Mile Dam in Trail, BC is an example of Hydros resource smart concept. Together with Power Smart, these strategies are instrumental in the operation of BC Hydro, she said.

Another economic factor to consider, Scott pointed out, is the fluctuating price of natural gas, which has already contributed to inflating the projected costs of the GSX.

[The project] is premised on gas prices that may not exist by the time its built, Scott said. The gas price is high, and the general consensus is that it will stay high much higher than five to ten years ago when this project got off the ground.

But Odowichuk insisted that the future of the natural gas market has been addressed in light of the GSX undertaking. She said BC Hydro has identified gas as the solution for Vancouver Islands power needs, and said Hydro is very confident that the issue will not cause major problems.

We wouldnt move forward on natural gas if we hadnt done the research, she said. Its not a main concern.

What is a main concern, and is separate from the economic debate, is the environmental impact that 67 kms. of underwater pipeline could have.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is a registered intervener at the public hearings, and is participating with the marine coalition to get their message across to the panel.

Marine coordinator Natalie Ban said CPWS is primarily concerned with the lack of quantifiable baseline research that has been presented to justify the project. Ban said the ecological impacts of the pipeline are not known because that end of the project was not thoroughly explored.

She said the ongoing operations involved in the pipeline construction might have a potentially negative impact on the feeding patterns of local marine life.

We are quite concerned about the impacts on the endangered southern resident Orcha population, Ban said. She also said that a group of harbour porpoises will be affected, as the proposed pipeline will be built directly through their primary habitat.

Ban said the pipeline will also run through a proposed national marine conservation area, and the significance of such a designation should be taken into consideration by the NEB.

From our perspective, we've been concerned with the marine environment.

Groups with environmental concerns, such as CPWS, will be heard as part of the fifth panel. As of the News Reviews deadline, the public hearing had concluded its first witness panel review, which dealt with the corporate structure of the BC Hydro/Williams Ltd. partnership.

The next witness panel will be dealing with the justification of gas markets, the supply of gas, and the cost of proposed facilities.

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