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Draft EIS hits out at Alaska LNG plans

Ferc report says planned project could have significant impact on state's ecosystem

The developer of the proposed Alaska liquefied natural gas export project is reviewing a draft environmental impact statement from federal regulators that says the scheme could have a significant impact on the state's ecosystem, including caribou populations and wetlands.

The project, which includes a 20 million tonnes per annum liquefaction facility at Nikiski in the southern part of the state and an 800-mile (1287-kilometre) pipeline connecting it to North Slope gas production, would cause "substantial long-term to permanent impacts on permafrost, wetlands, forest, caribou (Central Arctic Herds), and air quality," according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc) report issued last week.

The fate of the $43 billion project was uncertain earlier this year after Alaska Gasline, a state entity tasked with developing the facility, ousted chief executive Keith Meyer in a board shake-up orchestrated by Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy that replaced four out of seven directors.

Dunleavy has been an outspoken critic of the project, and Meyer was replaced by Joe Dubler as interim president.

Dubler later said the project was being evaluated to determine its viability, and that it could be wound down if it was found to be uneconomic.

However, companies operating on the North Slope continue to support the project as a potential outlet for stranded gas resources.

In May, Alaska's lieutenant governor said supermajors ExxonMobil and BP agreed to contribute a combined $20 million to help develop Alaska LNG.

Of the 35,550 acres affected by the project's construction, about 33% would be wetlands, according to the report.

About 3540 acres of wetlands would be temporarily affected, while 8270 acres would be permanently affected.

"The project wetland impacts would lead to fragmentation of wetlands and the loss of wetland functions such as water storage, groundwater recharge, fish and wildlife habitat, shoreline stabilisation, and nutrient production," according to the report.

"Additionally, the project would affect special wetland complexes and wetlands not previously affected by development.

"The large area of wetland conversion to upland, loss of wetland function, and long timeframe for restoration would result in a significant adverse impact."

In addition, Ferc staff found "inconsistencies" between wetland impact data filed by project developer Alaska Gasline Development and information included in its construction plan for the pipeline during the winter and in permafrost.

Ferc staff updated the data to be consistent with the plan and noted that the updates "do not significantly change the extent of temporary and permanent wetland impacts from mainline pipeline construction".

However, they advised the developer to review the updated information and confirm that it is consistent or provide revised data.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to permit the proposed wetland impacts.

Regarding wildlife, Ferc staff determined that effects would be minor in terms of population for species that are well-distributed across the state.

"However, impacts would be greater for species with specialised habitat requirements where construction or operation would occur in sensitive habitats or during sensitive periods," according to the report. "This includes moose, bear, caribou, Dall sheep, muskoxen, and wood frogs, all of which would experience some construction in sensitive habitats during sensitive periods. Likewise, these species would experience some permanent changes in habitat availability."

Yet, "given the distribution of these species state-wide and/or the availability of other suitable habitat, population-level impacts on these species from project construction and operation would not be anticipated."

For the Central Arctic Caribou Herd, which has declined in population from 70,000 in 2010 to 22,000 in 2016, impacts would "likely be significant due to the timing of impacts during sensitive periods, permanent impacts on sensitive habitats, and the project location at the centre of the herds’ range," the report said.

However, it remains unknown if the impacts on the herd would be temporary or long-term.

Ferc staff recommended the developer conduct seasonal monitoring to determine whether the Point Thomson Unit Gas Transmission Line and the project's gas treatment plant, both on the North Slope, create barriers to caribou movement.

Ferc staff included a list of mitigation measures to be considered as conditions for authorisation, including filing additional information and data.

"With the incorporation of these mitigation measures and oversight, Ferc staff concludes that (Alaska Gasline's) project design would include acceptable layers of protection or safeguards that would reduce the risk of a potentially hazardous scenario from developing into an event that could affect the off-site public," according to the report.

Environmentalists railed against the project following the issuance of the report.

"We should be addressing climate change and the extinction crisis instead of supplying fossil fuels to China," Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said. "This massive project just should not go forward."

Alaska LNG said it would examine the report to understand its recommendations.

A final EIS is scheduled to be issued next March.

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