Centra gas pre-hearing sets tone for pipeline project Construction could start in May By Chris Woodall Time is pressing for Centra Gas to get the approvals it needs to start construction on a 60 km natural gas pipeline from Squamish to Whistler. Once complete, possibly by September, the feed of gas will replace Whistler's reliance on propane, after customers have equipment converted between September and October. A pre-hearing conference at the Fairways Hotel, Feb. 10, chewed over agenda timing for public meetings, and inclusion of additional information Centra Gas should provide to give the public — and B.C. Utilities Commission — a chance to say aye or nay at the hearing, Monday, April 6. Centra Gas says if they can't get the pipeline in the ground and hooked up to Whistler by this fall, it will have to spend a whack of money to upgrade, even temporarily, its propane facility north of Nesters mall. "We are at capacity now," says Gareth Jones, manager of engineering. It's expected that 200 additional customers due to need gas of some kind this autumn will force Centra to spend at least $400,000 to hook up the additional customers to propane. Another $500,000 might be spent on site to increase capacity. Centra wants to lay the anticipated pipeline along the Highway 99 right of way, an unprecedented manoeuvre according to officials at the pre-hearing. The Ministry of Highways must approve that route, even if everyone else is happy. There is no is alternate route, Jones says. Construction must start by May. The six-inch-diameter steel pipeline would be buried four feet with a six-foot lateral cover ditch space "so it has sufficient cover to avoid significant damage to the pipe from rock falls," Jones says. The pipe is of special high-strength steel made to specifications for high-pressure gas pipeline applications, Jones says. The pipe is made in Alberta. Without approval to build a pipeline, the propane facility will need a $2 million upgrade to handle anticipated demand. This could result in a 4 per cent increase in propane bills to cover that expense. As it is, natural gas runs about $2 GJ compared to $6 for propane. Propane is at the cheap end of the market right now. Last winter propane was $11. However, Whistler will have the cost of the pipeline added to its natural gas heating bill, spread over 15 years, bringing the gas unit cost closer to what propane costs now. "The price of natural gas is a lot more stable than propane and is almost always lower," says Tim Wake, a local retailer who has sat on committees over the years bargaining with Centra to establish rates of service. There are 1,396 Whistler customers on propane now. "Whistler is quite unique with its high commercial development in hotels," Jones says. While there are different kinds of customers — residential, hotel, commercial, industrial, etc. — everyone will pay the same rate. "The feeling is that we're all in this together," says Robert Pellatt, utilities commission secretary. Things may be different down the road, Pellatt admits. "As the system matures, at some point in the future Whistler could go through a process like that (having different rates depending on type of customer)." Converting to natural gas is not a big deal, requiring a change in burner "holes" and re-working the mix of gas and air. But Centra doesn't want to do conversions later than mid-October. "We could be shutting down a building for a couple hours," Jones explains. "If we have a mild fall that's no problem, but if we have a typical fall there could be some problems."