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B.C.’s Natural Gas Hypocrisy Leaves Consumers Paying the Price

One of the thorniest issues raised in the joint review panel’s report on BC Hydro’s Site C dam proposal is that of the B.C. government’s hypocritical policy on the burning of natural gas for electricity.

“The LNG developers have been promised a free hand to burn their gas here for their own purposes, but BC Hydro has been denied the same privilege,” the panel wrote in its report on the $7.9 billion proposed dam.

The controversy revolves around the 2010 Clean Energy Act — and who it applies to and, perhaps more importantly, who it does not.

The act limits BC Hydro’s options for generating electricity by demanding that 93 per cent of the province’s energy needs be met by “clean or renewable resources” — eliminating the use of gas turbines and sending the gas-fired Burrard Thermal generating station into early retirement.

It’s a reasonable policy from a climate change perspective — but there’s a catch.

In June 2012, the province exempted the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry from the Clean Energy Act, enabling plants to burn as much natural gas as they’d like to power their giant compressors — despite originally promising they’d be powered by clean electricity — and, as of now, that’s exactly what they intend to do.

“If it is acceptable to burn natural gas to provide power to compress, cool, and transport B.C. natural gas for Asian markets, where its fate is combustion anyway, why not save transport and environmental costs and take care of domestic needs?” the Site C panel wrote.

To turn natural gas into a liquid for export, it must be cooled to 163 degrees below zero. Doing so essentially requires running a gigantic refrigerator 24/7. Each of the large LNG plants proposed for B.C.’s coast (there are 10) would need the equivalent of an entire Site C dam to power it by electricity.

Oilsands-sized pollution problem

The Pembina Institute reports that for the province to meet its annual revenue hopes of more than $4 billion (five to seven LNG facilities) by 2020, the resulting carbon emissions from that industry would rival that of Alberta’s oilsands.

In case you missed it, this is the industry that Premier Christy Clark has repeatedly touted as producing the “cleanest LNG in the world.”

For B.C.’s LNG industry to come anywhere near to being “clean,” plants would need to be fuelled by renewable electricity, not natural gas.

With that in mind, Clean Energy Canada recently commissioned a feasibility study that looks at meeting the energy demands of LNG plants with regional renewables, such as wind on the north coast, which wouldn’t require transmission upgrades or power from the Site C dam.

“Any LNG facility on the North Coast could primarily power its production facilities with renewable energy and do so reliably, affordably and on schedule—using established commercial technologies,” Navius Research concluded. “Further, doing so reduces that plant’s carbon pollution by 45 per cent, and increases local permanent jobs by 40 per cent.”

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

If the province is going to forge ahead with an LNG industry, 91 per cent of British Columbians say it’s “very important” or “somewhat important” for LNG plants to maximize their use of renewable energy, according to a poll conducted by NRG Research Group in October 2013.

I haven’t seen any poll results on the matter, but methinks British Columbians wouldn’t respond to kindly to the natural gas industry playing by a different set of rules than the rest of us. After all, a Strategic Communications poll from April 2014 found 78 per cent of British Columbians supported the province moving off of fossil fuels completely in favour of clean sources of energy to prevent climate change from worsening.

B.C.’s natural gas contradiction

Due to the Clean Energy Act, BC Hydro couldn’t include gas-fired electricity in any of its scenarios presented to the Site C panel — even though the LNG industry can now burn gas willy-nilly.

That means natural gas facilities like Burrard Thermal, which has similar capacity to Site C, couldn’t even be considered as an intermittent source of power for times when electricity demand peaks.

With a price tag of $7.9 billion, Site C is the most expensive infrastructure project on the books in Canada — and could be the largest public expenditure in B.C. for the next 20 years. Meantime, the lower impact, more affordable alternative of geothermal power hasn’t been placed on the table by BC Hydro due only to the province’s “failure to pursue research over the last 30 years,” according to the panel.

If the province approves Site C this fall and it actually gets built, the project is expected to chalk up $800 million in losses in the first four years due to a lack of market for its power — and it’s BC Hydro customers (pssst … that’s you and me) who will be on the hook for covering the loss.

While British Columbians are picking up the tab for that, the LNG industry will be enjoying a free pass to pollute.

It’s high time for Clark to force the LNG industry to play by the same rules as the rest of us — and, for her own sake, she’d better do that before British Columbians cotton on to the fact she’s trying to sneak an oilsands-sized pollution problem below the radar while sticking British Columbians with a pricy and impractical megadam.

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Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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