Province of British Columbia
Province of British Columbia

Fracking comes to the world’s ‘greenest city’

The gas boom in British Columbia could result in an additional 73 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year

VANCOUVER, British Columbia— From a plane landing in Vancouver, the city shimmers below. Skyscrapers sheathed in glass reflect water that lies on three sides of downtown. Forested mountains serve as a backdrop that has made it easy for politicians to brand Vancouver the world’s “greenest city.”

There is more to that reputation than just PR. Vancouver’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are among the lowest of any urban center in North America. The city council has made bicycling infrastructure a priority. And in 2008, the government of British Columbia enacted a relatively steep carbon tax that has earned international praise for lowering the province’s per capita consumption of fossil fuels to well below Canada’s average.

Making B.C. look even cleaner by comparison is its dirty neighbor. Right next door in Alberta are the Athabasca oil sands, a development vilified around the world as one of the most environmentally destructive industrial projects in human history. 

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has promised that an emphasis on natural gas development would bring jobs and prosperity to the province.
Province of British Columbia

But Canada’s westernmost province might not stay so green. Its premier, Christy Clark, has begun a push to make B.C. a world leader in the production of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Her government’s plans are so ambitious that a number of studies predict that B.C.’s LNG emissions could nearly equal those of Alberta’s oil sands by as early as 2020.

Those estimates range widely. If companies are required to use the cleanest technologies available, emissions can be reduced. There are also questions whether B.C.’s LNG sector will grow as large as the government is hoping it will.

But scientists and economists predict that a boom is on the way, with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling technologies unlocking shale deposits of natural gas previously deemed untappable. Fracked gas is not as clean as people think, environmentalists warn. In B.C.’s zeal to supply the world with LNG, Canada could add to the earth’s atmosphere another oil sands’ worth of GHG emissions every year.

The provincial government says it wants at least three LNG facilities constructed by 2020 and is already basing future revenue and jobs estimates on the construction of as many as five to seven new terminals.

According to a February 2014 report by the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank that focuses on energy, the addition of those LNG plants would result in 73 million more tons of GHG emissions per year. The Alberta oil sands (also known as tar sands) release 101 million tons of GHG annually.

Matt Horne, B.C. regional director for the Pembina Institute, warns of growing emissions due to the booming natural gas industry.
Travis Lupick

Matt Horne, B.C. regional director for the Pembina Institute and one of the report’s co-authors, notes that the 73 million figure is in “the same ballpark” as estimates produced in similar research.

At his office in Vancouver, he points to the work of Tides Canada, another environmental nonprofit, which estimates that B.C. LNG emissions could hit 82 million tons per year by 2020.

And there’s a government briefing note from June 2013, made public in response to a freedom of information request, that states, “Emissions increases in B.C. resulting from liquefied natural gas development could range from a 16 percent increase through to a doubling of B.C.’s total emissions … At the high end of that range, B.C.’s natural gas sector emissions would be comparable to those from Alberta’s oil sands.”

Horne emphasizes that his numbers do not include pollution at end-use combustion, which would likely occur in Asia. They pertain only to GHGs released in B.C. at points of extraction, transport and processing. “And end use is going to be about 80 percent of the total,” he adds.

A report Horne is working on that is expected out in early June will present an analysis of how a mature LNG sector in B.C. could affect global climate change models. While it’s too early to offer numbers, he says, the additional GHG could be “significant.”

Increased global emissions would be equivalent to putting 24 to 64 million cars on the roads of the world.

Marc Lee

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Marc Lee is a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who has examined B.C. LNG farther down the supply chain. According to an October 2012 report he authored, by 2020, total GHG emissions associated with B.C.’s LNG sector — including what’s released at end use for energy production — could range from 167 million to 305 million tons per year.

“Increased global emissions would be equivalent to putting 24 to 64 million cars on the roads of the world,” Lee tells Al Jazeera — like giving a vehicle to 1 in every 5 Americans.

Lee says that’s because of methane, a GHG with a heat-trapping potential 86 times as great as carbon dioxide’s over 20 years.

“Leakages of methane in the extraction and processing phase of unconventional gas development could mean that, on a life-cycle basis, natural gas from unconventional sources is equivalent to or even worse than coal per unit of energy,” Lee’s report states. “It is estimated that if 3.2 percent of gas leaks, that wipes out any GHG advantage relative to coal.”

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that four to nine percent of methane can be lost in LNG production.

Plans for B.C.’s LNG industry have caught the attention of politicians in Ottawa. Elizabeth May is the leader of Canada’s Green Party. She tells Al Jazeera that the problem with B.C.’s natural gas boom is that it’s dependent on shale gas deposits that will be tapped via hydraulic fracturing.

“Fracked natural gas is not the greenhouse-gas-friendly fossil fuel lite that conventional natural gas is reputed to be,” May says. “You talk about B.C.’s relatively good reputation, but once people pull back the curtain on Christy Clark and look a bit into the carbon intensity of fracked natural gas, that good reputation won’t last.”

Rich Coleman, right, B.C. minister for natural gas development, with industry representatives for a tour of an LNG facility in the town of Kitimat.
Province of British Columbia

The provincial government has resisted revealing its own numbers for future emissions. For months, opposition politicians have complained that it has ducked questions and dragged its feet responding to freedom of information requests.

B.C.’s Ministry of Natural Gas and Development declined to make a representative available for an interview. An emailed statement emphasizes B.C.’s aim to supply international markets with the cleanest-burning fossil fuel available.

“China has decided to increase the use of natural gas in its energy supply to 8.3 percent,” the statement reads. “This is expected to displace some of the growth in coal-fired electricity and could avoid 93 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one-and-a-half times B.C.’s total GHG emissions.”

One of Canada’s most vocal proponents for the Alberta oil and now B.C. LNG is Ezra Levant, a political commentator who has a new book on fracking coming out in May. He describes fracking and horizontal drilling technologies as “miraculous” developments that have allowed the United States to approach energy independence.

“For those that believe in the theory of man-made global warming, it’s also been amazing because natural gas has about half the global warming impact — if you’re worried about that sort of thing — as coal,” he says. “The United States … is one of the greatest reducers of greenhouse gas emissions because of fracking.”

Levant claims the same reduction in emissions could occur north of the border.

The key factors are regulation and technology, according to Mark Jaccard, a B.C.-based climate scientist who has worked with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Nearly a decade ago, he published a book, “Sustainable Fossil Fuels,” which he’s still learning lessons from — namely, that dirty technologies don’t have to be dirty.

“There does not need to be methane leakage [in LNG operations],” Jaccard says. “I remember when we thought we had to have sulfur emissions when we used fossil fuels. No, you just regulate it, and we did regulate it.”

Thomas Pedersen, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Change Solutions, similarly emphasizes that LNG facilities will need to power their operations with renewable forms of energy and not natural gas, as most do.

“If you can do that, we’ll be ahead of the game, and we will make progress on climate change,” he says. “If we don’t, then we will not achieve the targets that we need to achieve as a human species.”

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