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Liquefied Natural Gas Terminals Proposed

The St. Lawrence River has been used to transport many things, from timber and grain to oil and consumer goods. But proposals to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals along the river have some people concerned about safety. LNG projects are being considered for Lévis, near Quebec City, and Gros-Cacouna, near Rivière-du-Loup.

LNG is natural gas cooled to -160 degrees C so that it changes from a gaseous state to a liquid. As a liquid, it takes up only 1/600th the volume it does as a gas and can be economically transported by ship.

The demand for natural gas is increasing, partly because this is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. Currently, natural gas, transported by pipeline from Western Canada, supplies about 12 percent of Quebec’s energy and 34 percent of Ontario’s. But the price of natural gas is rising as production from North American sources levels off. Terminal partners would like to import LNG from overseas to supply Quebec and Eastern Ontario.

LNG is transported aboard tankers with double hulls to help prevent leaks. Tankers used on the St. Lawrence would also be reinforced to withstand ice. Each terminal would consist of a tanker pier, storage tanks, facilities to warm the LNG and convert it back to a gas, and a pipeline to transport the gas to the existing pipeline delivery network.

These proposals are at various stages in the governmental regulatory review process, including public hearings by an environmental assessment panel. However, the Cacouna Energy project seems to have a better chance of approval than the more controversial Rabaska LNG project which would be built in Lévis, a more densely populated area.

The $650-million Cacouna Energy project is backed by partners TransCanada and Petro Canada. The terminal would be located in an industrial area on Gros-Cacouna Island, about 200 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. Although opponents pointed out that the site is close to several wetland and marine conservation areas and to some of the prettiest historic villages in the province, the Cacouna Energy project was approved following environmental hearings and awaits the final go-ahead from the provincial government. It could be in operation by 2009 or 2010.

The Rabaska LNG terminal is being considered for an industrial site in Lévis after residents of the neighbouring community of Beaumont voted in a referendum against allowing it in Beaumont. The partners behind this $840-million project are the Quebec-based energy company Gaz Métro, Enbridge (an energy transport company) and Gaz de France. The terminal would be located opposite the western tip of picturesque Île d’Orléans.
St. Lawrence River shipping channel near Île-aux-Coudres

LNG tankers would use the same shipping channel as other commercial vessels but, according to the Rabaska partners, this would have a minimal impact on commercial shipping and pleasure boating. One ship would travel up and down the river to Lévis every six days, and a delivery could be expected at Cacouna every four to eight days.

Good Safety Record

The gas industry points out that the LNG transportation safety record has been good for more than 40 years. In that time, there have been more than 40,000 LNG carrier voyages, with no serious shipping incidents. The last time a major accident involving serious injuries at an LNG storage or import facility occurred was in 1979, while a serious fire occurred at an Algerian production facility in 2004, killing or injuring more than 100 workers. The worst accident occurred in 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio, killing 128 people, but much has changed in the materials and practices used in the industry since then. Today, LNG supplies all of Japan’s natural gas, and the industry is familiar in France, Spain and the United States.

Cacouna Energy promotional materials say that “should a spill occur on land or on ice-cover, LNG will evaporate completely, leaving no residue. . . . Should a spill occur on the water, LNG will form a pool on top of the water and evaporate quickly, even in cold temperatures.”

But a 2004 report prepared for the U.S. Congressional Research Service suggests that fire could pose a serious hazard following a spill. It says that if LNG spills near an ignition source, evaporating methane (the main component of natural gas) in a gas-to-air ratio of between 5% and 15% can catch fire.

The flames could spread as the pool of LNG expands away from its source and continues to evaporate, the report continues, adding that a pool fire burns very rapidly and cannot be extinguished: all the LNG must be consumed before the fire dies out. In addition, the heat from a pool fire is so intense that people and property located some distance from the actual flames can also be burned.

In the United States there are five operating LNG terminals, while 17 new ones have been approved, and another 20 have been proposed. But there is considerable opposition to the technology as Americans envision terrorist attacks on terminals near populated areas. Some Canadians worry that terminals will be approved here and the gas then piped to customers in the United States. There are currently eight proposals to build LNG terminals in the Maritime provinces, Quebec and British Columbia, including one at Grande-Anse on the Saguenay River, a major tributary of the St. Lawrence.

However, some industry watchers wonder whether either St. Lawrence River project will ever become a reality. A huge increase in world demand for natural gas means supplies are expected to remain extremely tight until 2012 and prices will stay high. Neither partnership has so far signed a contract with a supplier.

Copyright Janice Hamilton 2007