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BC Ferries has launched a bid to build up to seven green flagship vessels but climate groups are urging the company to abandon liquified natural gas to fuel ships and speed electrification of its fleet to reach its emissions targets.

The ferry service recently revealed it has teamed up with a naval architectural firm to develop an early design to replace six aging vessels and expand capacity on the busiest routes between the mainland and Vancouver Island.

The diesel-electric hybrid ferries will be more fuel efficient, have fewer greenhouse gas emissions and will be able to run on bio- and renewable fuels when they hit the water between 2029 and 2033. The new boats will also be capable of switching to 100 per cent battery-electric operations once rapid onshore charging is available, according to the ferry service.

However, BC Ferries hasn’t specified the type or mix of fuels that will power the vessels or any timelines for electrification.

The provincial ferry service is on the cusp of a make-or-break opportunity to lead a climate transition in Canada’s maritime transport sector, said Anna Barford, shipping campaigner for Stand.earth Canada.

“The new ships are a step in the right direction, but when it comes to the transition to fully electric vessels — later is too late,” Barford said.

The ferry service needs to wean itself off fossil fuels, and especially liquified natural gas (LNG), and electrify the fleet faster to achieve 2030 emissions target, according to Stand.earth’s new Fracked Ferries report released Tuesday.

BC Ferries must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 27 per cent by 2030 to meet provincial targets mandated in the CleanBC plan. However, the company has achieved less than a four per cent drop in emissions from the 2008 baseline year, the fleet’s most recent sustainability report shows.

BC Ferries generated approximately 329,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the last fiscal year ending March 31, 2023 — 98 per cent of which came from ships burning fossil fuels.

BC Ferries has launched a bid to build up to seven green flagship vessels but a @standearth report is urging the company to abandon LNG to fuel ships and speed electrification of its fleet to reach its emissions targets.

However, powering the provincial fleet with LNG, an especially potent greenhouse gas, is a key concern.

LNG has lower carbon dioxide emissions than other fossil fuels used in shipping, but it is primarily composed of methane, a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas that creates more than 80 times as much heat in the short term as CO2 and approximately 30 per cent of global warming.

Compared to the cheap and dirty heavy fuel oil (HFO) often used in shipping, LNG does emit less carbon dioxide and harmful air pollutants like sulphur, while meeting older emission standards and costing less than other types of maritime fuels.

The use of LNG as a shipping fuel is skyrocketing. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) found methane emissions from ocean shipping increased up to 155 per cent between 2012 and 2018, though use as a fuel had only grown by 30 per cent in the same period, the Stand.earth report noted.

However, fugitive methane leaks occur at every step of the LNG production cycle, including fracking, flaring, the liquifying process and when ships burn it as fuel, Barford said.

BC Ferries operates five LNG-powered vessels, including its four newer Salish Class vessels, with the latest ship, the Salish Heron, starting service to the Gulf Islands in May 2022.

The provincial corporation centred much of its initial 2019 Clean Futures plan around transitioning the BC Ferries fleet to LNG as part of its emissions strategy, Barford noted.

However, the IMO formulated stricter global emissions standards in July 2023 that will no longer exempt methane emissions from LNG as a shipping fuel in the future. Additionally, Canada has pledged to slash oil and gas methane emissions by a minimum of 75 per cent below 2012 levels by 2030.

However, BC Ferries Clean Futures plan released in 2022 isn’t transparent about how much methane may be contributing to emissions, nor are any specific interim reduction targets or details about how the company will meet its climate goals spelled out, Barford said.

BC Ferries routes are ideal for electrification because they have relatively short sailings and regular docking that would allow for charging during loading and unloading, she added.

“It may look difficult from BC Ferries’ perspective but from a shipping sector view as a whole, the fleet is primed for electrification,” Barford said.

In 2021, Norway launched an electric ferry that carries 600 passengers and 203 cars per crossing, which is similar in size to BC Ferries Salish Class vessels. Additionally, Norway plans to have all ferries be low- or zero-emission by 2030.

BC Ferries has scaled back its ambitions on electrifying its six Island Class vessels, originally aiming to have all the ships electrified by 2025.

However, the corporation recently confirmed it has contracted four new Island Class vessels that will be 100 per cent battery-electric when they come into service in late 2027.

The new vessels will serve Quadra Island and Gabriola Island from Vancouver Island with new terminals and the necessary shore power up and running before the ships arrive.

However, in the last fiscal year ending March 2023, the six vessels still consumed about 4.4 million litres of diesel, data in the Stand.earth report showed.

The World Bank has argued LNG’s future as a marine fuel is limited and any further investment in vessels or infrastructure should be curtailed to avoid the risk of stranded assets, said Barford.

The lack of transparency about BC Ferries’ fuel use and associated emissions makes it difficult to determine whether the company is on track to meet its climate goals, said Barford, adding Stand.earth had to file freedom of information requests to try to get that data.

“We can’t determine if [BC Ferries’] Clean Futures plan is working,” Barford said.

“We would love to celebrate their leadership, but they need to chart a course away from fossil fuels, and the information we’ve gleaned suggests a significant overhaul to their plan needs to occur.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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