BC’s natural gas play: a climate charade
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
Regardless of fugitive emission levels and whether they can be managed, major climate research characterizes natural gas as a “bridge fuel to nowhere.” According to a March, 2012 study, technologies that only modestly reduce greenhouse gases, such as natural gas, won’t meaningfully reduce climate risk in the next 100 years; aggressive deployment of zero carbon technologies will.
A study by the US National Center for Atmospheric Research concludes that substituting gas for coal results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades and, in the 100-year time frame, it would make a difference “around the edges” of the problem. According to the International Energy Agency, natural gas displaces as much low-carbon electricity as high carbon coal. Its low price “muscles out” the renewable sources that will solve the climate problem.
The call for a solution to our destabilizing climate is becoming more pointed: keep the carbon in the ground. A new study by the International Energy Agency states, “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if this world is to achieve the 2 degree C goal.” That two-thirds that must stay in the ground includes most of the natural gas reserves. The Potsdam Institute estimates that 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground, and this is the figure that Bill McKibben is using in his sold-out “Do the Math” tour of university campuses.
“Clean energy” that blows BC’s legislated greenhouse goals
The 2010 BC Clean Energy Act requires that at least 93 per cent of the electricity in BC come from clean or renewable resources and that by 2020 BC will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 33 per cent less than the emission levels of 2007. The Act stands in the path of Premier Clark’s plan to double by 2020 the exploitation of shale gas for compression into liquid form in three to five new plants in Kitimat and export it to Asia. Those plans will result in both combustion emissions (transportation and equipment) and fugitive emissions (the direct venting of methane and CO2 into the atmosphere).
Of particular note, running the proposed LNG plants in Kitimat on BC Hydro power (which would require infrastructure subsidized by all users) would be more expensive than running them on natural gas, which is currently cheap. But running the LNG plants on natural gas would push the province over its 93 per cent clean fuel requirement.
Clark solved the problem in July 2012 with an order in council that redesignated natural gas – when used to compress LNG -- to be a “clean” source of energy under the act.
But an order in council can’t change the nature of a molecule, and the proposed plants will still emit enough greenhouse gases to push BC past its 2020 emissions targets. It’s too bad because, outside of the resource industries, the rest of BC has reduced our emissions so much we are ahead of our legal climate goals.
Lee modeled the impact of natural gas expansion on BC’s legislated climate goals. If the natural gas industry doubles its 2010 emissions by 2020 (the most modest scenario given BC’s plan to increase production by 2.3 times 2011 production levels), the rest of BC will have to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to about a third of 2010 levels. Under the high scenario, which assumes three plants run on natural gas and includes methane leakage estimates, the natural gas industry substantially exceeds BC’s legislated emissions targets on its own with no contribution from any other industry.
Lee concludes that the Natural Gas Strategy is contrary to the intent of BC law: “meeting the 2020 GHG targets is essentially impossible if we must simultaneously accommodate growth in the oil and gas sector.”
Even if the shale gas industry could mine its product in a manner that wouldn’t sabotage BC’s legislated carbon reduction goals, its largest damage comes when its product is put to its intended use: combustion. According to Lee, Clark’s planned LNG exports would result in exported combustion emissions in 2020 that are four times greater than BC’s own target.
Climate leadership or fracking expansion: who chooses?
BC's claim to climate leadership will either succomb to the short term economic goals of the gas industry or ripen into a new decision making framework aimed at stabilizing climate change. We can either radically expand fracked gas exports or meet our climate pollution reduction targets. We can't do both.
Right now, both the BC Liberals and the NDP pay lip service to climate goals while supporting LNG exports. This deprives us of the honest choice between climate leadeship and infrastructure that locks us in to an increasingly dangerous future.
If we don't change the political landscape prior to the spring election, lip service and fracking will continue apace, and ever larger torrents of greenhouse gas molecules will flood skyward like rivers in the rain. A factual discussion and the opportunity to choose are not headed our way. They will happen when we make them happen.