Creating utility corridors just makes sense

Sharing of the corridors would keep more forested land available for economic and ecological services.

By Rick Brouwer

Over the next couple of years, BC Hydro’s transmission line from Terrace to Kitimat is going to be replaced.

But BC Hydro is not just changing the towers, they’re moving the line to a totally new place. This means that they’re clearing almost 350 hectares of forested land as they develop a whole new corridor. That’s a lot of trees to be cut.

According to BC Hydro, at least part of the reason is because the current line is in areas that are too sensitive to be disturbed once again by installing new towers.

They also say it’s cheaper than using the existing route because it’ll be 10 km shorter. Both are good reasons – particularly since they seem to support environmental and financial prudence.

However, I wonder if there weren’t a few other opportunities to save even more money and reduce the environmental impact of all that new clearing even more, given that over 20 km of the new line is quite close to – but does not use – the planned and already-cleared natural gas Pacific Trail Pipeline (PTP) corridor.

Our forests are a great renewable resource, but not when they are permanently cleared. Perhaps the footprint of the clearing for the BC Hydro line could have been reduced by using part of the PTP corridor.

Of course the pipeline and the transmission line can’t be on top of each other – flammable gas and electricity don’t mix well – but they almost certainly could have shared information (wildlife, fish, terrain, archaeological surveys) and infrastructure (access roads and bridges), and reduced the total cleared area (staging areas, temporary work spaces).

Disturbance to wildlife habitat and travel corridors, streams, and ecological communities would also have been reduced, and the landscape would be less fragmented. Sharing of the corridors would keep more forested land available for economic and ecological services (timber, clean air and water, storing carbon).

The clearing for the new BC Hydro line will also produce a lot of logs and woody debris. Given what occurred on the PTP corridor and the Northwest Transmission Line near Terrace, some logs from the clearing will be marketed and sold.

There will also be logs that cannot be sold, just because there is no market: this currently includes logs that used to go to pulp mills, plus very small logs and logs with rot that are not attractive to the few operating sawmills in the area.

This results in a lot of wood left along the new line to be burned and there’s only so much that can be mulched. Sharing parts of the PTP corridor with the new line route would reduce the amount of wood to be burned, and reduced smoke and carbon release.

Given the potential financial and ecological benefits from sharing project corridors, you would think this would have been considered; however, I couldn’t find any indication on the Terrace to Kitimat line project website that this was done.

Companies or government agencies are not expected to look beyond their specific mandates, and large bureaucracies can be slow to act, particularly when that might move them away from the status quo.

It can take a lot to change direction, and can add time and costs. Managers under pressure to make decisions don’t like this.

While it does not look like it will happen in the case of the Terrace to Kitimat and PTP projects, I believe that the land – and the projects – would benefit from sharing their corridors.

Let’s call them “utility corridors”. Consider that clearing of the corridor for the Coastal Gas Link pipeline hasn’t started yet. Or that there are several other projects that may require clearing of corridors toward Prince Rupert.

I hope that corporate and government planners and natural resource professionals would also join me in recommending sharing of project corridors and knowledge.

In both government and corporate bureaucracies, it’s always easier to stay with the status quo.

Therefore, the leaders need to make change happen. On public land that means ministers, deputy ministers, and assistant deputy ministers.

They should (1) make shared utility corridors the goal; (2) require companies to share information and to work together; and (3) break down the bureaucratic and regulatory walls between government departments.

It takes direction from the top.

Rick Brouwer is the executive director of the Terrace-based Skeena Nass Centre for Innovation in Resource Economics.