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Greens call for pause on Woodfibre LNG plans after potential risks to pregnant women come to light

Three-year-old study out of USC and UCLA found pregnant people living near natural gas and oil wells that use regular flaring at 50% higher risk of premature birth
Woodfibre LNG
Rendering of Woodfibre LNG

The BC Green Party is calling on the provincial government to hit pause on plans for Woodfibre LNG in Squamish, citing a three-year-old study out of the U.S. that shows pregnant people regularly exposed to flaring at fossil-fuel facilities are at a 50% higher risk of premature birth.

“I have very serious concerns for communities near the proposed Woodfibre LNG facility in Howe Sound, particularly for pregnant people and their newborns,” said BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau in a release Thursday, June 8. “If Woodfibre LNG goes ahead as planned, pregnant people exposed to its flaring could face up to a 50% increase in preterm births. This is a shocking revelation that should spark immediate action from the B.C. government, including putting a pause on plans for Woodfibre LNG. We need immediate, independent research on the health outcomes of flaring in B.C. and close monitoring of communities near existing oil and gas sites where flaring takes place.

“Government has a responsibility to look out for British Columbians. Continuing to expand fossil fuel infrastructure that poses a risk to human health and exacerbates the climate crisis is the opposite of the leadership we need right now. By going ahead with these developments, [Environment] Minister [George] Heyman and Premier [David] Eby are demonstrating to the public that the potential health impact on pregnant British Columbians is an acceptable risk in the BC NDP's pursuit of fracked gas and LNG."

The Greens cited research out of the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles that gauged the impact on women living near natural gas and oil wells that use flaring to burn off excess gas. The study examined 23,487 live births to women living within Texas’ Eagle Ford region between 2012 and 2015. The Eagle Ford Shale geological formation, stretching 80 kilometres wide and 644 km long, is one of the most productive oil and gas regions in the U.S. and a hub of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

“Our study finds that living near flaring is harmful to pregnant women and babies,” said Jill Johnston, environmental health scientist at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, in the study. “We have seen a sharp increase in flaring in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, and this is the first study to explore the potential health impacts.”

The study, which was published in 2020 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, showed the pre-term birth rate was 14% among pregnant women exposed to a “high number” of flares, while babies born prematurely — before the 37th completed week of pregnancy — could suffer complications such as immature lungs, difficulty regulating body temperature, poor feeding, and slow weight gain.

A high amount of flaring was defined in the study as 10 or more nightly flare events within three miles (five km) of the pregnant person’s home. In a previous study, researchers estimated the area was subject to more than 43,000 flaring events between 2012 and 2016.

Woodfibre LNG has previously said it believes flaring will be used less than three per cent of the time, roughly equating to 11 full days a year.

“The study referenced by the Green Party addressed flaring within the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas — an upstream resource extraction area with a significant concentration of gas wells in the area. The context that this study was carried out in is very different from Woodfibre LNG, which — when constructed — will be a single liquefaction facility, designed to only flare in emergency situations or during certain maintenance procedures,” a Woodfibre LNG statement sent to The Squamish Chief said. “During the regulatory process, it was determined that there would be no significant impact to local air quality due to the operation of the Woodfibre LNG facility.”

While the same research hasn’t been conducted into proposed fossil-fuel facilities such as Woodfibre LNG, third-party experts quoted in the Greens’ release Thursday said the comparisons between oil and gas sites and LNG export facilities are apt.

“Though some of the technical details might be a bit different, comparing emissions and potential health impacts from oil and natural gas sites and LNG gas export facilities is a reasonable and fair apples-to-apples comparison,” said Tim Doty, environmental consultant and former manager of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in the release.

“In addition to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fracking, processing and burning gas, LNG facilities flare waste gas, adding hazardous pollutants to local airsheds. Mothers and their babies along with those with respiratory illness are particularly vulnerable to these pollutants,” added Dr. Tim Takaro, professor emeritus in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, in the release.

Woodfibre LNG said on its website the flare at its incoming plant “is not continuous” and would normally only be used at specific times, such as start-up, testing, and during routine maintenance.

Published in 2020, the study’s findings came out five years after the provincial government issued Woodfibre LNG’s environmental assessment certificate, which was renewed in 2020, prior to, according to the Greens, B.C.’s Chief Executive Assessment Officer reviewing the then-new research on the potential health impacts of oil and gas flaring.

“While this research out of UCLA and USC is relatively new, physicians in B.C. are already concerned about the health impacts of fracking and the government needs to take that seriously,” said Jeremy Valeriote, an environmental engineer and B.C. Green candidate for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, in the release. “Woodfibre LNG’s maximum estimated flaring frequency roughly matches the flaring evaluated by the 2020 study. Evidence of a 50% higher risk of premature birth is deeply alarming. Alongside its impact on climate change and associated local wildfire and flooding hazards, a precautionary approach to infant health is another reason for serious reconsideration of the B.C. government’s promotion of fracked gas and LNG.”

In a follow-up interview with The Squamish Chief, Valeriote said the Greens were highlighting the research three years after it was first published because they only became aware of it recently, thanks to the efforts of a party volunteer.  

Asked if he worried voters would view the move as politically motivated with a provincial election looming, Valeriote said it was part and parcel with what the Greens have always done.

“We’re over a year from an election and this is the BC Greens doing the work we’re supposed to do, which is bringing concerns to light and using the precautionary principle to try and make sure people’s health and wellbeing is kept in the forefront and in focus,” he said.

Woodfibre LNG is expected to begin construction in September, with a projected completion date in 2027.

The Squamish Chief will have more on this story in next week’s print edition.

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