Ontario Approves Importing U.S. Fracked Gas

The Ontario Energy Board’s approval of three natural gas projects last week puts the province’s plans to significantly reduce Ontario’s carbon footprint in jeopardy.

The ruling also gives Ontario the green light to import controversial shale gas from the U.S. This type of gas is trapped in rock-like shale and is extracted using a process called hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, which involves pumping a chemical mix underground at high temperatures to break apart the rock and free the gas. The practice has caused controversy worldwide due to fracking chemicals and methane contaminating drinking water.

“So often we see approvals given to pipeline and fossil fuel projects without a real understanding of the broader and long-term impacts on climate, water and public health,” says Emma Lui, a water campaigner with the Council of Canadians.

The interdependent projects — two by Union Gas and one from Enbridge Gas — will expand the natural gas supply and delivery network in southern Ontario. Consuming more natural gas, particularly a more polluting form of natural gas, are direct contradictions with the province’s strong greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

“Energy conservation is the lowest cost method to keep our homes warm. It creates jobs and reduces our greenhouse gas emissions and energy bills,” Jack Gibbons, director of the Ontario Clear Air Alliance, told DeSmog Canada in an interview.

Burning natural gas to heat homes and produce electricity accounts for 35 per cent of Ontario’s energy-related carbon footprint. Ontario plans to achieve a 15 per cent reduction in the province’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and a reduction of 80 per cent by 2050 (based on 1990 levels).

“Buildings are the third largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the province, making it important to save as much energy in heating them as possible,” Gillian McEachern, campaigns director of Environmental Defence, told DeSmog Canada. “Conservation needs to be a requirement before companies are given approval to expand infrastructure."

Environmental Defence, Council of Canadians and the Ontario Clean Air Alliance all found the Ontario Energy Boards’s decision a “disappointment.” They also disputed the need for the project because the alternatives were not properly considered.

The energy board criticized Enbridge Gas for only taking a “cursory” look at energy conservation as an alternative to its project, known as the GTA project. In the future, the board “expects applicants to provide a more rigorous examination of demand side alternatives, including rate options, in all gas leave to construct applications.”

Ontario Clean Air Alliance estimates Ontario could save $1.4 billion over 10 years if spending on energy conservation is increased. Installing more insulation and high-efficiency windows in homes, replacing aging furnaces with new models and switching to geothermal energy for space and water heating are just some of the ways of achieving these savings.

Ontario Needs To Increase Incentives For Energy Conservation

Ontario provides financial incentives for Enbridge Gas and Union Gas — Ontario’s main natural gas distributors — to invest in energy conservation, but only to a point.

The Ontario Energy Board has put a cap on gas companies surpassing their energy conservation targets — meaning the financial rewards stop once a company exceeds its conservation targets by more than 50 per cent.

The caps on financial rewards for energy conservation are “penny wise and pound foolish” and do not benefit Ontario according to Ontario Clean Air Alliance. The organization recommends the energy board remove the caps “subject to the constraint that this must not lead to undue rate increases” for Ontarians.

Pinning Ontario’s Energy Future on Fracked Gas Is Precarious At Best

During the public hearings on the gas projects, the Council of Canadians, one of Canada’s leading water advocacy groups, argued pinning Ontario’s energy future on U.S. shale gas was precarious at best.

Three reports from U.S. experts provided by the Council of Canadians indicated upcoming bans and moratoriums on fracking and gas wells nearing the end of their lives will make importing fracked gas less economical for Ontario in the future. This could increase energy costs for Ontarians in the end.

“While the image of tap water on fire has become iconic about the risks of fracking shale gas, the climate impacts are less understood,” says Andrea Harden-Donahue, a climate and energy campaigner with the Council of Canadians.

Fracking wells leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The world’s leading scientific body on climate issues, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, estimates methane has 84 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

The Ontario Energy Board appeared unmoved by the argument against using fracked shale gas:

“There are currently no regulations in Ontario or at the Canadian federal level which prohibit shale gas production or transportation.”

Quebec, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have all placed moratoriums on fracking.

Ontario Energy Board Decision Clears A Hurdle for Energy East Oil Pipeline

TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline proposal could benefit from Ontario’s decision to import large quantities of U.S. shale gas.

Part of the pipeline project to ship western Canadian oil to New Brunswick involves converting a natural gas pipeline running from Alberta to Ontario. Ontario receives almost half its natural gas through this particular pipeline system at the moment.

The prospect of Ontario losing a source of natural gas prompted the Ontario government to announce an assessment of the Energy East project on its costs and benefits for Ontarians. 

Now that Ontario will be able to tap into the booming shale gas industry of the U.S. the provincial government’s scrutiny of Energy East may not be that severe.

“The OEB decision helps lay the groundwork for Energy East,” Harden-Donahue told DeSmog Canada. “This is bad news all around for the region which could have the biggest tarsands pipeline snacking through it and be increasingly reliant on socially and environmentally damaging fracked gas imports."

Image Credit: Allen York, OCAA, OEB, Fracking Resources

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