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BC’s natural gas play: a climate charade

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Natural gas has lost its place in the portfolio of realistic climate solutions. Experts now call it "the bridge fuel to nowhere." BC must choose between its expansion of natural gas for export and its own climate credibility. The first test: getting on track to meet legislated 2020 carbon targets.

Natural gas – it’s clean, it’s soft, and it releases less CO2 per joule of heat than any other fossil fuel when burned. BC has plenty, so we can help China reduce emissions by selling our clean natural gas to replace their dirty coal. This good turn for the planet is consistent with existing BC climate legislation. Last but not least, it will create jobs and royalties here in BC. So it’s all good.

Except that it’s really not. Some issues to consider:

  • Natural gas can be as bad for the climate as coal, or even worse.
  • Even the “cleanest” natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits greenhouse gases at dangerous levels.
  • Replacing coal with natural gas won’t make an significant cut in global warming this century and could make it worse.  
  • Due to its current low price, natural gas is now muscling out  zero carbon renewables that are our only sure path out of the climate mess.
  • Expansion of the natural gas sector puts BC on a collision course with its own legislated greenhouse gas reduction goals.  One or the other will have to go.
  • Like all new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, natural gas infrastructure will have to be abandoned when the world grasps the readily available solutions that favour the continued existence of humanity.

Shale gas may do more greenhouse damage than coal

By 2020, 80  per cent of of BC’s natural gas could be created by fracking shale formations. Numerous studies are showing that the fracking of shale leads to many ecological problems and likely results in a higher climate pollution footprint than traditional natural gas wells. It may even be worse than coal.

Robert Howarth of Cornell University sounded the alarm in 2011 with a study that found 3.6 per cent to 7.9 per cent of the methane from shale gas production escapes to the atmosphere in vents and leaks.

The problem is that methane, the main constituent of natural gas, is much stronger in its green house effect than carbon dioxide, especially in the short term. According to Howarth, warming from shale gas is at least 20 per cent greater than coal in the first twenty years after release and it may be twice as great. Over the 100 year time frame, it is comparable to coal.

Howarth’s study opened a field of controversy. Critics point to the limits of the data he used – apparently, the gas industry refused to provide any more. A more recent study by Nathan Hultman of the University of Maryland found shale gas to have only 56 per cent of the climate impacts of coal when used electricity generation.

Still, the bulk of the research is against shale gas. Leakage rates may be site specific, and a recent study by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed Howarth’s numbers in other locations. The most positive conclusion is that shale gas won’t save the world but that if well managed/regulated, it might be marginally better than coal and oil.

This seems a flimsy foundation for investment. In the words of Joe Romm of Climate Progress:

[I]t bears repeating we have only a short time frame to sharply reduce GHGs before it becomes all but impossible to avoid key thresholds and tipping points.... And that means we can’t afford to spend lots of money on something that is “marginally better” than what we are doing today.

Romm and others suggest that shale gas emissions require systematic study before governments pursue policies in support of infrastructure that could accelerate climate related dangers. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives thinks the burden of proof should be with industry and the BC government to substantiate the claim that shale gas can serve as a bridge fuel to a low carbon economy.

Similarly, the province’s claim that BC exports of natural gas in liquid form (known as LNG) will diminish Asia’s reliance on dirty energy sources needs substantiation. Mark Jaccard, professor in resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, wrote in an email to the Globe and Mail: 

“I work with the leading global energy modellers and none of them find this result. [Clark] has no evidence to the contrary and yet makes up this story that natural gas exports are somehow miraculously clean.”

Mark Lee of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives stated in a Carbon Talks presentation that natural gas exports to Japan will create an emissions spike because it will replace nuclear power. The International Energy Agency’s forecasts for China show a growing use of coal and natural gas will just be piled on.

Natural gas: a bridge fuel to nowhere

(8) Comments

Ron Stewart November 22nd 2012 | 9:09 AM



"Enbridge’s recent and grossly under-reported announcement that it will mothball Phase 1 of its nearly-completed natural gas processing plant in the North Peace is a classic case in point. The brand new multi-million dollar facility will now sit idle, having never processed any gas, because the natural gas market has collapsed."

Kevinfw November 22nd 2012 | 4:16 PM

Natural gas: the crack cocaine of fossil fuels. This should be required reading if you plan on voting in the next BC election. There is no daylight between the BC Liberals and NDP on LNG -- they are both big boosters, and that's a reckless, short sighted position to take. We need a choice on this issue and it's not on offer (unless you live in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, where you can vote for Andrew Weaver).

By the way, I hope our energy minister, Rich Coleman, reads this -- he's been quoted in the media as saying that when Natural Gas (methane) leaks from pipelines, it "just disappears." If only we could say that about uninformed politicians...

Ron Wagner November 22nd 2012 | 7:19 PM

Natural gas is a very clean fuel, and even wind and solar have problems. Natural gas can meet base power needs until something better comes along. It is our best option.

D Trahan November 23rd 2012 | 7:07 AM

This article is amazingly one-sided and most importantly short-sighted with reality of our energy needs. Just look at the evolution of energy fuels over the centuries. Up to the 1800's civilization used wood, then with the invention of the steam engine coal mines could be dewatered and coal became the energy fuel. This had to do with energy density. Coal has multiples more energy per unit weight, so less needed to be carried to points of consumption. Along with a beginning in population increase globally. Consider in 1800's we were barely over 1 billion people on planet Earth. Today we're nearly 7 billion. We have a gargantuan need for energy fuel and this cannot be escaped.

As we in the industrialized world move away from coal and oil other developing countries are scooping up the inventories and working to industrialize. So are we really accomplishing anything here?? Consider CO2 emissions in US went down by 7% last year, lower coal burning main reason. Oh, but US imported record amounts of coal to India and China whose carbon emissions are climbing at double digit rates. Heck, regions in Africa still use wood as primary fuel. Its not sustainable.

Consumers want the cleanest, densest form of energy. The ratio of carbon to hydrogen atoms in a fuel tells the story. Wood has a carbon to hydrogen ratio of about 10:1. Thats 10 carbons for every 1 burnable hydrogen atom. Going to coal lowered this ratio to about 2:1. Coal has lost out in many areas to oil which is carbon to hydrogen of 1:2. And now natural gas is at 1:4. So the evolution away from carbon-based energy fuels is happening regardless of any political trends and the fuels are cleaner. Are they the cleanest yet, nope. But its headed in the right direction. The only "non-carbon" fuel sufficient in volume to support any replacement is nuclear. We can marvel at the articles on hydrogen engines but its still fantasy. Wind . . . too inconsistent, too costly, no grid-compliant storage. Solar . . . too inefficient, too inconsistent, too costly, no grid-compliant storage.

I feel natural gas sounds pretty darn good for where we are right now in the energy evolution. Can't escape the numbers. Is there a better approach, maybe in small amounts in isolated areas. But nothing to replace the HUGE energy demand of an industrialized nation.


sandcanyongal's picture
sandcanyongal November 26th 2012 | 2:02 AM

D Trahan. Nice history. However, even down here in Southern California, in the Tehachapi Pass, we're in a serious drought. It hasn't rained here for 6 months and it's bone dry here. No rain, no cold weather or snowpack means no watershed to fill up wetlands, aquifers, fill streams, rivers, lakes and ocean the next thaw. Drought means crop failures.

The planet is in serious trouble as long as we continue to pollute the atmosphere trapping greenhouse gases. Plain and simple. Natural gas is not a clean energy, maybe cleaner than coal, but not clean. Even if the U.S. reduces emissions, let's face it, the earth rotates and the U.S. breathes China's pollution. Heck, they're opening a new coal plant every week.

 Maybe it's going to take global famine to wake us all up. It would be better if we step back, conduct global r & d and identify best of breed solutions. Current solutions are nothing more than bad experiments like industrial wind mills that don't even have grills on them to protect birds and bats from being wiped out. They should be banned. Development of natural gas is just as destructive to get it out of the ground and transported. These technologies will have zero impact on reducing emissions. Population growth and the newest energy guzzling technology are electric vehicles that will cancel any gain  in no time.


C Saxifrage November 26th 2012 | 2:14 PM

Here's a good "myth buster" article on wind power:

Ron Stewart makes an important point about the collapse of the natural gas market.  There are a lot of different economic factors that make LNG look like a poor investment.

At a recent Carbon Talk, David Austin, an energy lawyer at Clark Wilson, pointed out that the price differential between Asian and North American natural gas markets is driving the LNG investment, but it won't last. Historically the price of natural gas has correlated to the price of oil and when the market corrects the price, it will shift away from natural gas. The LNG plants won't have a cheaper energy product anymore and LNG will lose its market. This is particularly true if the Kitimat LNG plants use natural gas as a fuel, as planned. Electricity generation is 60% of the cost of running an LNG plant and as the price of natural gas rises, the plants will lose profitability. 

Regarding provincial royalties, the carbon tax brings in much more revenue. Royalties have dropped from a high of $1.9 billion in 2005/06 to $339 million in 2011/12 and is forecast at $157 million for 2012/13. The province's bad bet on natural gas has made it hard for Finance Minister Mike de Jong to balance the budget.


One energy expert estimates that, if BC exports natural gas at the rate planned by Premier Clark, we would drain our reserves in less than 8 years.


First Nations rights could do in LNG. The Wet'suwet'an are blockading the natural gas pipeline to Kitimat and the Fort Nelson First Nation says the giveaway of water to the industry must stop.

There are many externalized costs from the LNG industry which will ultimately require regulation. In particular, natural gas extractors should be charged the true cost of their water use and water pollution. In addition, fracking has been shown to cause earthquakes.  

I didn't raise these myriad issues in the article because they are generally covered elsewhere while climate impacts are not. Fossil fuel infrastructure locks us in to the climate impacts of drought, famine, ocean acidification, mega-storms, sea level rise, species loss and massive human suffering. That is the most necessary public discussion of our time, one that the  media does not promote even though, at this time, we can still prevent the worst. 

The province is doing its best to gloss over the fact that BC voters can't have climate leadership AND LNG exports. We could become true climate leaders by investing in the new energy economy (and avoiding the cost of the natural gas and carbon bubbles). We need to push this choice to the forefront of civic debate or else it will never be presented to us, not by the liberals and not by the NDP.  

John Twigg November 28th 2012 | 7:19 PM

The article above is well-intentioned but the experts cited are a bit one-sided and the perspective a bit narrow.

First it should be realized that whatever B.C. chooses to do in energy policy reforms is more or less irrelevant except perhaps in symbolism because the size of our energy market and hydrocarbon outputs are relatively small; if B.C. stopped exporting coal Asia would just get dirtier cheaper coal elsewhere; if B.C. stopped exporting natural gas the buyers would get it elsewhere. Not to mention that the human-caused additions to carbon in the atmosphere are still dwarfed by natural additions and carbon as a proportion of the atmosphere is still miniscule. Hence it is a false crisis! Who would manufacture such a thing? It's not rocket science... follow the money to see who benefits from higher energy prices.

The point about methane emissions being far worse than CO2 is a good one and gets closer to the real problem: that mankind needs to quickly and radically reduce its polluting activities of all types, and even that is only a small part of the much more pressing and urgent need to radically reform the world's political and economic systems, which probably will never happen unless there is divine intervention - which the Bible happens to also state and predict!

Indeed just as the crisis crunch with Victoria's sewage emissions is still many decades away, so is the supposed crisis with global warming: any large rise in sea levels is still many decades away, and meanwhile milder winters are a boon to people in the northern hemisphere. But the crisis in world politics and economics is already here. If only the Jaccards of the world would take a wider view.

But congrats to the Vancouver Observer - it's great to have an open and independent media where discussions like this can take place. I'm not promoting pollution but I would urge everyone to try to focus more on the more real and urgent challenges we face and to find practical solutions to them.

Campbell's energy strategy was developed on the back of napkins and was imposed dictatorially and was used as a ploy to attract just enough votes from naive moderates to steal an election win he really did not deserve to get. His policy is riddled with contradictions, such as Christy Clark's cabinet order declaring natural gas to be clean when it's for making LNG - what hypocrisy! (Another one is taxing schools and hospitals on their uses of carboniferous fuels. Yet another is using carbon tax proceeds to subsidize oil and gas exploration companies.)

Campbell played the same sorts of games with the HST and indeed with a whole gamut of policies, especially regarding employment but also agriculture and food - but where were and where are all the protesters of those issues and of other scandals like his drunk-driving and having what appeared to be an unusually close relationship with a woman staffer on the publlic payroll? Not to mention many other blotches like the tainted sale of BC Rail and the payoff to Boss Power and the sweetheart deals for IPPs and the massive debts hidden insider B.C. Hydro... I guess the energy policy experts were so busy down on the railway tracks bravely posing for the cameras that they didn't see the lights on those big-picture real-world problems.

The comment about the windmills lacking screens to protect birds from being cruelly massacred was another excellent point; maybe B.C. could take the lead in job creation in new energy by requiring that any and all B.C. windmills use made-in-B.C. bird protection screens, which we could export too.

And maybe we should manufacture our own electric vehicles, our own lightbulbs (long-lasting incandescents too pls) and our own energy from our own sewage etc etc etc.

There is so much more we should be. Let's start with a genuine policy towards full employment. Now THAT would make a real positive difference.


Bill Henry November 28th 2012 | 9:21 PM

I'm mostly unfarmiliar with natural gas in BC, and I don't live in Canada; my first curisosity upon learning a bit about the LNG export proposals and the lingering question about how they are to be powered, is how gas is viewed in BC as a heating fuel, which I assume is heavily used in winter..