Smithers pipeline challenger receives threats

Says he only wants to make sure governments obey the law

The Smithers resident who wants a federal review of the natural gas pipeline that would feed the planned multi-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas facility at Kitimat says he’s received threats against his life and property.

“I can tell you it’s been relatively intense,” said Michael Sawyer of the attention focused on him since he asked the federal National Energy Board (NEB) at the end of July for an order that TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink pipeline project be put under federal regulation.

The pipeline has already received a green light from the province’s environmental agencies, a key factor in the decision by LNG Canada’s Joint Venture Partners (JVPs) whether to give the project the go-ahead or not.

The JVPs, which now include the Malaysian energy giant Petronas, have indicated a decision will be made by the end of the year, something that’s placed residents, businesses and local governments in Kitimat and Terrace in a high state of anticipation. But if Sawyer’s application to the NEB is successful and a review is in order, there’s a growing concern among LNG proponents in the region that an investment decision would be delayed.

And it’s that worry which has placed Sawyer in the spotlight, resulting in the threats.

“One said ‘Hope you have your fire insurance up to date’ and another was ‘Look out. We’re coming to get you,’” said Sawyer.

He’s contacted the Smithers RCMP who so far describe messages as “implicit” and not “explicit,” Sawyer added.

“There’s not enough for them to act on,” he said of the police response.

Sawyer said he understands the range of emotions arising from his NEB filing from people anticipating an economic boom from any LNG development, but said his filing is based on Canadian law and judicial precedence.

“We live in a society where there’s the rule of law,” said Sawyer, adding that when governments don’t follow the rule of law, “it’s incumbent upon citizens to hold (government’s) feet to the fire and have them obey the law.”

It’s a position Sawyer based on two previous court decisions, a 1998 Supreme Court of Canada decision and a 2017 Federal Court of Appeal decision involving the now-shelved Pacific NorthWest LNG project near Prince Rupert.

While pipeline projects in B.C. don’t solely fall under provincial jurisdiction as defined by the constitutional provision giving provinces control of natural resources, both decisions determined that a tie-in with existing pipelines that are under federal jurisdiction would also place those new projects under federal jurisdiction.

The 2017 decision is particularly relevant for Sawyer because it stemmed from his own appeal of an NEB decision dismissing his assertion that the pipeline feeding the Pacific NorthWest LNG project was within federal and not provincial jurisdiction. The pipeline would also have been built by TransCanada.

Sawyer maintains that because that decision was never appealed by either the NEB or TransCanada, it now stands as a precedent.

In addition to Sawyer’s legal position, he refutes the premise that LNG is a clean fuel which can replace fuels such as coal until “some other mythical fuel is found.”

While LNG as a fuel may burn cleaner, once the cumulative energy-using impacts of drilling, fracking, processing, pumping through pipelines, super-cooling for shipping and shipping itself are considered, the emissions total is greater than burning coal, he says.

“The [cumulative] emissions are two per cent greater,” said Sawyer. “When you then look at the claim that it’s a cleaner fuel, it’s simply not true.”

It’s why a federal review of the project is needed in the broad public interest, he added in questioning the thoroughness of the provincial review.

Sawyer also said a federal review would put into play federal species protection legislation – he has his eye on a northeastern B.C. caribou herd resident in an area where he said TransCanada has already indicated it would need to drill 700 wells a year, with accompanying infrastructure, over the next 30 years.

“That (caribou) herd would simply no longer exist,” said Sawyer.

Overall, Sawyer said the provincial approval of Coastal GasLink was driven by the former BC Liberal government’s haste to “approve the project and get it running.”

“Look, if there had been a fulsome [provincial] review, and they acknowledged all of the risks and decided to go ahead with it anyway, I may not have agreed with it but at least it would be intellectually honest,” he said.

A former environmental consultant in Alberta, first for oil and gas companies and then for citizen groups, landowners and First Nations over a career of more than 20 years, Sawyer said he moved to Smithers to more or less retire.

However, Sawyer said he saw deficiencies in how energy projects in B.C. are examined and decided to become more involved.

He says there’s no personal financial gain in what he’s doing and counters critics’ accusations he’s receiving money from American foundations.

He did receive $2,500 to help with legal costs from the West Coast Environmental Law Society’s environmental dispute resolution fund which is financed by interest earned on trust accounts maintained by lawyers in B.C.

Individuals have also made small donations.

And as for why the application to the NEB has only been filed now with an LNG Canada investment decision expected so soon, Sawyer said it simply took this long to gather his information.

“There’s no intention to time my application. That’s how long it took to get this together,” he said.

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