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TransCanada Plans Natural Gas Pipeline Over Rugged Mountain Route To Kitimat

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TransCanada plans a rugged over-mountain route for its proposed Coastal Gaslink pipeline to the Shell Canada liquified natural gas project in Kitimat, B.C., company officials said this week in two presentations.

The proposal was presented Monday to the District of Kitimat Council and then at a community town hall briefing.

The pipeline would initially carry 1.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Montney Formation region of northeastern British Columbia along a 48 inch (1.2 metre) diameter pipe over 700 kilometres from Groundbirch, near Dawson Creek, to Kitimat.

Rick Gateman, president of Coastal GasLink Project, a wholly owned TransCanada subsidiary told council that the project is now at a "conceptual route" stage because TransCanada can't proceed to actual planning until it has done more detailed survey work and community consultations.

At the same council meeting Shell Canada filed documents that notified the District that it has formally applied to the National Energy Board for an export licence for the natural gas.

Gateman told council that since the pipeline itself will be completely within the province of British Columbia, it comes under the jurisdiction of the British Columbia Environmental Assessment process and the BC Oil and Gas Commission and that the NEB will not be involved in approving the pipeline itself.

At first, the Coastal Gas Link pipeline would be connected to the existing Nova Gas Transmission system now used (and being expanded) in northeastern British Columbia.

From Vanderhoof to west of Burns Lake, the Coastal GasLink pipeline would be somewhat adjacent to existing pipelines and the route of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline and the proposed Pacific Trails natural gas pipeline.

Somewhat south of Houston, however, the pipeline takes a different route from the either the Northern Gateway or Pacific Trails Pipeline, going southwest, avoiding the controversial Mount Nimbus route.

Howard Backus, an engineering manager with TransCanada told council that route changes so that Coastal GasLink can avoid "congestion" in the rugged mountain region. Backus said that the Pacific Trails Pipeline "is skirting" Nimbus while Enbridge plans to tunnel through the mountain. That tunnel is one of the most controversial aspects to the Northern Gateway project. The local environmental group Douglas Channel Watch has repeatedly warned of the dangers of avalanche and geological instability in the area where the Northern Gateway pipeline emerges from the tunnel.

Under TransCanada's conceptual route, the pipeline heads southwest and then climbs into the mountains, crossing what Backus calls "a saddle" (not a pass) near the headwaters of the Kitimat River. The pipeline then comes down paralleling Hircsh Creek, emerging close to town, crossing the Kitimat River and terminating at the old Methanex plant where Shell plans its liquified natural gas plant.
(That means that if the conceptual plans go ahead, the TransCanada pipeline would climb into the mountains, while Pacific Trails finds a way around and Enbridge tunnels).

Backus assured people at the town hall that energy companies have a lot of experience in building pipelines in mountainous areas, including the Andes in South America.

Gateman told council that the pipeline would be buried along its entire route. If Shell increases the capacity of its LNG facility in Kitimat, the Coastal Gaslink pipeline could increase to 3.4 billion cubic feet a day or perhaps even more. For the initial capacity, the company will have one compressor station at the eastern end of the line. If capacity increases or if the route requires it, there could be as many as five additional compressor stations. (TransCanada's long term planning is based on the idea that Shell will soon be adding natural gas from the rich Horn River Formation also in northeastern BC )

TransCanada will begin its field work, including route and environmental planning and "community engagement" in 2013 and file for regulatory approval in 2014. Once the project is approved, construction would begin in 2015.

Gateman said that TransCanada is consulting landowners along the proposed right of way and "on a wide area on either side." The company also is consulting 30 First Nations along the proposed route. Gateman told council, "We probably have the most experience of any number of companies in working directly with and engaging directly with First Nations because of our pipelines across Canada."

Gateman told council that the pipeline would be designed to last at least 60 years. He said that in the final test stages, the pipeline would be pressured "beyond capacity" using water rather than natural gas to try and find if any leaks developed during construction.

He said that the company would restore land disrupted by the construction of the pipeline, but noted that it would only restore "low-level vegetation." Trees are not permitted to close to the pipeline for safety reasons.

TransCanada made the usual promises the region has heard from other companies of jobs, opportunities for local business and wide consultations. (TransCanada may have learned lessons from the botched public relations by the Enbridge Northern Gateway. A number of Kitimat residents have said that TransCanada was polling in the region in mid-summer, with callers asking many specific questions about environment and the spinoffs for communities).

Kitimat Coun. Phil Germuth questioned Gateman about the differences between a natural gas pipeline and a petroleum pipeline. Gateman replied that the pipelines are pretty much the same with the exception that a natural gas pipeline uses compressor stations while a petroleum pipeline uses pumping stations.

Gateman did note that the original part of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry bitumen through Alberta and U.S. mountain states to Texas was a natural gas pipeline converted to carry the heavier hydrocarbons.

Although the natural gas projects have, so far, enjoyed wide support in northwestern British Columbia, environmental groups and First Nations have raised fears that sometime in the future, especially if there is overcapacity in natural gas lines, that some may converted to bitumen, whether or not Northern Gateway is approved and actually goes ahead.