By Amy Fendley
Cost uncertainties due to unresolved route details are the main reason why Centra Gas has delayed its proposed gas pipeline from Squamish to Whistler.
Centra Gas had been working on plans to replace its existing propane-based heating fuel system with natural gas by the fall of 1999. The company has been working closely with the Ministry of Transportation and Highways for the past two years, the first of which Brian Kemble, vice president of technical services, says was the ‘talking stage’.
"We’ve been working hard to develop this between Squamish and Whistler," said Kemble. "We’ve been trying to get approvals and its taken more time and effort than either of us anticipated. We had a good idea about the capital needed for this project, but this is an interesting geological route and there is a lot of detailed design required."
The Centra Gas line would pass through Squamish land and require District of Squamish approval, since their gas comes from the Squamish Gas Company.
The pipeline was originally planned to run along Highway 99, but Centra Gas is now looking at other feasible options, such as incorporating the line into sections of the existing and proposed Sea to Sky Trail.
Uncertainty around the issue of which route the pipeline would take, is cause for debate at municipal hall.
Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and administrator Jim Godfrey recently met with the Ministry of Highways regarding the gas line and they now believe the gas line should be off or away from the highway where ever possible.
O’Reilly said B.C. Tel is interested in bringing fibre optic line to Whistler and the gas line and fibre optic line might be able to follow the same route.
"We’re looking for an alternate or hybrid route that may end up as part of the Sea to Sky Trail," O’Reilly said.
The geography between Squamish and Whistler makes any route very costly.
"We evaluated the Sea to Sky Trail as an alternative," Kemble said. "The consulting firm we hired determined the cost to be $12 million greater than running the line on the highway right-of-way, but we’re looking for an economic alternative to supply the community... we can’t finalize, so we don’t have an estimate.
"There are a lot of stream crossings where there would have to be either aerial or underneath-the-stream crossings," continued Kemble. "Alignment along the highway hasn’t been finalized, and until we get this finalized we can’t get a cost.
In a press release, Kemble said that cost uncertainties associated with planning and approval delays have pushed the project past the point where Centra Gas can commit the required capital to fund the major undertaking by the 1999 construction season.
The company remains hopeful that natural gas will eventually provide a viable energy solution for Whistler.
"We’re still committed to the project," said Kemble. "We’ve had a lot of good, co-operative meetings with Highways, who are not familiar with having a natural gas line running along the highway. It’s been educational, but co-operative. The project is good, just it’s a little different in characteristics because of the geography, but it makes it interesting and challenging."
If the pipeline is ever completed and hooked up, the cost would be passed on over several years to Whistler customers. Nothing physically needs to be altered in homes and businesses if Whistler is changed over from a propane system to natural gas, the system would simply tie into the existing propane grid. Most of Whistler’s propane is brought to town by BC Rail and off-loaded into a tank farm.
One benefit of natural gas is that it is cheaper than propane, which can fluctuate wildly in price, year to year.