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Why the allure of natural gas is distracting Canada from a sustainable energy future

Climate researchers stress that natural gas bridges can often lead to nowhere as the reliance on natural gas can lock countries into fossil fuels, crowd out low-carbon technologies and risk stranding assets
This article was originally published on The Conversation.

The Canadian government has used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the removal of Russian natural gas exports to justify increasing natural gas production in Canada. Much of the necessary infrastructure for producing and transporting this liquefied natural gas (LNG) would, however, take years to develop, locking Canada into an emissions pathway that is incompatible with the 1.5 C climate target.

How policy-makers talk about energy production hints at governments’ plans for our transition from carbon-based energy sources like oil, coal and natural gas to renewables like wind, solar and geothermal. Stakeholders on both sides of the energy transition — fossil fuel companies and climate activists — are now eagerly competing to make them use their preferred language.

Lately, the fossil fuel industry has begun referring to natural gas as a “bridge fuel” or an essential part of a low-carbon energy transition. Climate researchers stress that natural gas bridges can often lead to nowhere. Reliance on natural gas can lock countries into fossil fuelscrowd out low-carbon technologies and risk stranding assets — assets like coal mines and hydrocarbon reserves that drop in value as a result of energy transitions.

Our research finds that this bridge narrative is growing in Canada and making inroads in climate policy, and fossil fuel companies are winning the battle on how we talk about natural gas expansion.

Bridge fuel narratives

There are at least two main bridge fuel narratives or frames in Canada — each one tied to a particular regional economic and political reality as well as where each region is located along its unique decarbonization pathway.

First, the conventional bridge fuel frame emerging from Alberta acknowledges that natural gas electricity production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions but positions it as a lower-carbon alternative to coal. The Alberta government opposes a managed transition away from oil and gas and instead focuses on trying to reduce emissions released during the production and transmission of natural gas.

Second, the bridge fuel narrative in British Columbia focuses on the argument that expanding LNG production and exports could reduce emissions overseas — what we refer to as the “global bridge narrative.” The global bridge frame positions the province’s LNG industry as a way for other countries like China to reduce their reliance on coal.

John Horgan tours LNG Canada
B.C. Premier John Horgan tours the LNG Canada site in Kitimat, B.C., in January 2020. The province approved the liquefaction and export facility, and associated infrastructure, on an assumption that B.C. gas will help overseas countries reduce reliance on the likes of coal and oil. Photo: Province of British Columbia / Flickr

The life-cycle of methane emissions — the emissions from production to consumption — from natural gas could actually result in higher life-cycle emissions overall. This framing also overlooks the significant underestimation of methane emissions from LNG production in Canada (and sidesteps B.C.’s position as the leading exporter of Canadian coal).

But the global bridge narrative has been incredibly durable in B.C., so much so that the Canadian LNG Alliance contends that the fossil gas industry can even contribute to meeting B.C.’s climate targets.

However, increased production will instead add emissions not accounted for in B.C.’s climate policy.

Regions have different plans for, and questions about, natural gas

On the other side of the country, the natural gas narrative is more muted.

Despite Newfoundland and Labrador’s continuing offshore oil and gas production and New Brunswick’s petroleum refining industry, the Atlantic provinces are less confident about the transition benefits of natural gas. Instead, they are focusing on switching home heating from oil and diesel fuel to alternative methods such as heat pumps, although natural gas has emerged as a potential replacement for coal-fired electricity.

Other provinces like Manitoba that are less reliant on natural gas are also planning to navigate the energy transition without a natural gas bridge, while Ontario’s bridge narrative positions natural gas mainly as an energy source for transportation and home heating.

The uncertain position of natural gas in regional climate plans affects the speed of future decarbonization in Canada and beyond.

Encana’s Deep Panuke Offshore Gas Project located 250 kilometres south east of Halifax. Photo: Encana Corporation.

Though oil and gas industry associations are powerful actors, their economic interests are not always aligned with one another. And we are seeing evidence of diverging interests in the oil and gas industry in Canada. For example, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is yet to embrace the bridge fuel frame, doubling down on the idea of natural gas as Canada’s “destination fuel.”

Meanwhile, other industry associations like the Canadian Gas Association are more open to a wider range of transportation and heating fuels, not just natural gas. Anti-fossil fuel advocates can leverage these tensions to challenge the idea of natural gas as a bridge or destination fuel.

A switch to natural gas just delays climate action

While traditional climate denialism has fallen out of political favour in Canada, our research finds that climate delay is alive and well in policy discussions.

Climate delay acknowledges that climate action is necessary but obstructs rapid change, justifying minimal action. Our research finds that bridge narratives reinforce climate delay by reassuring citizens that decarbonization will happen in the future while entrenching support for ongoing natural gas production today.

For many provinces, natural gas expansion provides an alluring solution to the pain of transitioning away from petroleum, one which says that we can scale up oil and gas production and decarbonize our electricity, transportation and housing sectors without any losses.

However, decarbonization will have real costs for oil producing provinces and successful policy-making needs to address these impacts up front. Talking about real costs also means establishing credible commitments regarding the anticipated pace of energy transitions.

Bridge fuel narratives distract us from considering how long our decarbonization journey will take. An honest conversation about our energy future must include proven non-emitting technologies, such as scaling up wind, solar and geothermal production and building inter-provincial transmission lines rather than locking in our dependency on natural gas.

The Conversation

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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