Christy Clark is our province’s very own natural gas salmon, swimming gamely upstream against the advice of evidence and experts from multiple fields, determined to spawn B.C.’s LNG business in the heart of the province and give it the best start she can — everything else be damned. Or dammed, or whatever.
On a visit this week to Fort St. John, which is currently on fire, the premier bragged that producing and burning LNG will help prevent wildfires by causing a net decrease in carbon emissions as it displaces coal in China.
“If there’s any argument for exporting LNG and helping fight climate change, surely it is all around us when we see these fires burning out of control,” she told reporters at a press conference.
Not even taking into account the Orwellian logic of using increasing early starts to the destructive wildfire season to sell the public on the province’s biggest fossil fuel ambitions ever, that statement is akin to saying switching to a fast food diet will help you lose weight because at least you’re not eating pure lard: it’s somewhat true, but only if you’re really desperate to justify that Big Mac.
Here are the facts: when the full life cycle of natural gas and its non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions (like methane) are taken into account, LNG does little or nothing to reduce overall emissions, even in places where it displaces coal — and it may even increase emissions according to some estimates. And without strong climate policies that put a price on carbon in the market the gas is destined for, demand will continue rising for all fossil fuels, hampering the upward trajectory of alternative energy sources and efficiency programs.
Cheerleaders for LNG like the provincial government like to point out that burning natural gas for electricity is about half as CO2-intensive as coal. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story.
Natural gas, also known as methane, has about 25 times the climate-altering power of CO2 over a 100-year span. This means anything leaked between the well and the power plant adds significantly to the overall climate-change impact of the fuel, and those leaks are not insignificant: the EPA estimates that in the United States the energy industry is the biggest single source of methane.
Turning that raw natural gas into its liquid form for transport isn’t cheap from an energy (or financial) standpoint, either. With the gas itself often used to power the liquefaction process, between 10 and 20 per cent of the product is lost in that process alone according to industry numbers, again ramping up the GHG emissions before it has done anything useful for anybody.
China is indeed planning on building up its coal power base. But substituting some of that coal power production for natural gas electricity will not have the intended emissions-reducing effect without climate policies that favour alternatives. A widely-adopted price on carbon could mean a decrease in the use of all fossil fuels — including LNG and coal — while a business-as-usual approach would just result in more of both.
Natural gas has been hailed as a “bridge fuel,” helping us bridge the gap between energy-intensive fuels and zero-emissions alternatives. It may be a mind-blowing revelation to some, but whatever the best solution to climate change is, it’s probably not burning more fossil fuels. With even the promised economic benefits of LNG called into serious question, there’s one less reason to dive headfirst into an industry that at best has a few decades left before much of it becomes a stranded asset. So if LNG is truly a bridge, the question is where that bridge really ends.