For British Columbia, natural gas is a critical component of the energy sector. In 2018 the province made the decision to implement infrastructure to produce and export liquefied natural gas, known as the LNG project, to global markets.
The combustion of natural gas emits considerably lower amounts of carbon dioxide than fossil-fuel and coal alternatives, showing promise as a climate change mitigation strategy. Natural gas has potential as a ‘transition fuel’ that can be used to shift energy consumption from fossil-fuel sources.
However, there are concerns regarding the harmful processes required to extract and transport natural gas. The liquefaction of natural gas uses large amounts of energy, offsetting some of the potential benefits. Additionally, extracting natural gas from shale reserves, through the process of fracking, releases large amounts of methane gas.
In the short term, LNGs could have a reasonably small impact on world greenhouse gas emissions; however, if their use continues in the long-term, there is a potential for a large negative impact on overall emissions. British Columbia’s investment in natural gas is more likely to accelerate climate change than mitigate its effects.
British Columbia constitutes 30% of Canada’s natural gas production currently, the most out of any other province. Natural gas production in British Columbia comprises 90% of all drilling activity in the province, with most of the activities taking place in the Horn River Basin, the largest shale deposit in the province, and the Montney Formation in northern BC.
Natural gas shale deposits are typically fractured using fluid injections at high pressure, which is used to increase permeability and allows natural gas to flow easily through wells. This process is hydraulic fracturing, or informally ‘fracking’, and is required for almost all shale reserves because reserves naturally have low permeability. Slickwater, a combination of water, sand, friction reducers, and other chemicals, is the preferred fluid for fracking in industry due to its low economic cost.
Wells used for hydraulic fracturing are horizontal instead of vertical, which increases surface contact with shale reserves. Horizontal drilling requires greater amounts of water than traditional vertical wells, higher pressures, larger areas of rock, and therefore heavier equipment to supply these needs.
Concentrations of carbon dioxide gas in shale vary depending on geological location; gas extracted from the Horn River Basin reserve, for example, typically contains 12% CO2 of the total volume. Carbon dioxide levels must be reduced to 1% volume CO2 before it can enter pipelines. The extra carbon dioxide, separated from shale gas, is usually released into the atmosphere, contributing to emissions during the production process.
Because of the chemical additives in fracking liquid, water contamination is an environmental concern in areas where fracking takes place. There is also the potential for soil contamination if the fluid is not contained and leaks into the ground. Fracking in British Columbia requires wastewater to be collected and stored in enclosed tanks. In BC, a majority of the wastewater is re-injected into deep aquifers. 'Flowback' of wastewater occurs when the injected water rises to back to the surface and happens more frequently when larger amounts of water are used.
Slickwater fracking techniques are more water-intensive than any other method but are cost-effective for companies to use, increasing the probability of flowback occurring. Well fracturing in BC typically uses volumes ranging from 2000 metres cubed to 100,000 metres cubed per well. Water is sourced from freshwater sources, which contributes to the issue of having limited freshwater reserves. However, recent technological advances allow saline water to be used provided the water undergoes a purification process.
Earthquakes have been reported in areas proceeding hydraulic fracking activities. The seismic tremors are small in magnitude, with the largest being recorded at 3.8 on the Richter scale, and research indicates that no damage to infrastructure has developed as a result of fracking.
From 2009 to 2012 the Horn River Basin had 272 reported seismic events that could be directly related to hydraulic fracking. A report from the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission noted that this area had no previous history of seismic activity, and that these new seismic events had epicenters within 5 kilometers of hydraulic fracking operations and within 300 meters of hydraulic fracking depths. As a result of this increase in seismic activity, six new seismograph stations were built and are currently being operated by Geoscience British Columbia as part of the Canadian National Seismograph Network. The report also noted that only one of the recorded seismic events was strong enough to be felt at the ground surface.
When combusted, coal and oil emit 90.87g/MJ and 74.58g/MJ of carbon dioxide respectively. Natural gas emits 49.88g/MJ of carbon dioxide, approximately half of the emissions of coal and oil.
However, the production of natural gas also produces greenhouse gasses, such as methane, or CH4. These leaks in processing have made it hard for scientists to calculate the amount of methane being released, and the exact impact natural gas production has on climate change. In British Columbia in 2017, there was an estimated 111,800 tons of methane released annually.
Methane emission is a large environmental concern due to its high warming potential. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane is 84 times more powerful in its greenhouse effect.
Global warming potential, or GWP, is a measure of how much energy 1 tonne of emitted gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide. According to the most recent estimates from the IPCC, methane has a GWP of 86 on a 20 year scale and 34 on a hundred year scale. The GWP scale for methane is much lower in a hundred year time period than the twenty year time period because of how long the gas will remain in the atmosphere, which is only about a decade. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, lasts in the atmosphere for much longer, with estimates claiming that it could last thousands of years.
Natural gas has effective applications in transportation and works as a substitute for vehicle gas and diesel. In the combustion of natural gas vehicle fuel, less carbon dioxide is emitted compared to regular gas or diesel. However, modern natural gas engines lack the efficiency of contemporary gas vehicle engines, typically 5-15% less.
Nearly 20% of all natural gas extracted is used to heat both homes and commercial buildings, and assists in reducing the environmental footprint of these buildings.
Power plants traditionally rely on coal to fulfill their intensive energy needs; however, natural gas may play a role in replacing coal as a main energy source. 
The BC government approaches natural gas extraction from an ecosystem services stance, hoping a long-term investment in companies, such as LNG Canada, will reduce reliance on fossil-fuels and coal, create jobs for British Columbians, and help the province meet the reduced greenhouse gas emission standards agreed on in 2007. The Office of Premier Horgan professes a commitment to “reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 2007 levels by 2030, and by 80% by 2050”.
However, organizations like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives don’t believe this is true, stating: “The BC government seems determined to break its own law on greenhouse gas emissions”. The chief concern that groups, such as the CCPA, have with BC policy is the goalpost-moving on emission targets, and a lack of focus on the negative effects of natural gas mining. Methane is emitted as a byproduct of the extraction process, which the CCPA worries will outpace the province’s efforts to reduce their emissions:
“If these [methane] emissions in 2010 had remained flat at 2007 levels, BC’s total GHG emissions in 2010 would already be 6% below 2007 levels (i.e., at the 2012 target level), given the decreases seen in other sectors”.
Despite this and other protests, BC has made consistent moves towards facilitating the extraction of natural gas in the billions of dollars, particularly in recent years.
In 2015, regulations were put in place on greenhouse-gas emitting industrial facilities, to enhance the independence of verification made to ensure facilities comply with emission standards. In particular the legislation requires all industrial operations to cap their emissions, which the BC government claims will make their liquefied natural gas facilities the cleanest in the world.
At the acts signing, the British Columbia Minister of Environment, Mary Polak, remarked on the ultimate goal of expanding LNG extraction: "LNG will play a significant role in the global climate solution as countries look for a cleaner, transition fuel to replace dirty fossil fuels like coal and gradually move towards 100% renewable. When nations choose LNG from British Columbia they will do so knowing ours is produced in the most environmentally conscious way."
The legislation also boasts additional funding to development of clean technology using tax revenue from the act.
In 2016, the Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change was a policy made by the Prime Minister and premiers of Canada in order to meet Canada’s commitment of reducing greenhouse gasses by 30 percent below 2005 levels.
The Vancouver Declaration also promotes clean economic growth and investment in technology that leads to a low carbon economy by 2050.
The Declaration also implements working groups. In relation to technology, the declaration states:
“The Working Group on Clean Technology, Innovation and Jobs will provide a report with options on how to stimulate economic growth, create jobs, and drive innovation across all sectors to transition to a low-carbon economy, leveraging regional strengths. This working group will consider a range of policy tools to bring new and emerging technology and innovations to market, sustain a competitive economy, reduce GHG emissions, encourage growth and investment, and increase exports of clean technologies, services and expertise. Their work will be overseen by Ministers of Innovation and Economic Development, who will receive their report.”(page 7).
The Vancouver Declaration later lead to the creation of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, which outlined a comprehensive plan for Canada in order to achieve these emission goals.
The $40 billion LNG Canada project in Kitimat, British Columbia, is one of the province's largest proposed liquefied natural gas projects. It consists of a proposed export plant to be built on the coast of BC in the town of Kitimat, with the purpose of shipping LNG to Asian countries. Two LNG processing units, termed 'trains', are to be implemented along with the export facility, according to LNG Canada.
Liquefied natural gas is produced by cooling natural gas down to -162 degrees Celsius, which is the temperature required for the gas to condense into a liquid. In this form, liquefied natural gas takes up 1/600th of the space that it occupies in its gaseous state. The export facility at Kitimat is projected to accept 700 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and produce up to 5 million tonnes per year.
LNG Canada, which controls the Kitimat LNG Project, is a combination of companies consisting of Shell Canada Energy (40% of interest), Petronas (25%), PetroChina Company Limited (15%), Mitsubishi Corporation (15%), and Korea Gas Corporation (5%).
The cost for the liquefaction plant and the 670 kilometer pipeline which transports the gas from Dawson Creek to Kitimat will exceed US$ 17.6 billion, according to a company official.  The total investment of $40 billion will cover the following:
According to modelling by the government's Climate Action Secretariat, the LNG facility in Kitimat would result in the equivalent of 3.45 megatonnes of carbon dioxide being released a year. However, in May 2018, the government of British Columbia had updated its emission targets, aiming at a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 80% by 2050.  Hence, it is becoming a big challenge for British Columbia to achieve the proposed target with the establishment of the Kitimat Project.
Asian countries, such as China, Japan, and Korea, are now replacing coal with gas due to environmental, technological and economic factors. This indicates that there will be a huge demand for natural gas, which will provide large economic and social benefits to Canada. The project itself will generate an estimate of 5000 jobs, including 3000-5000 jobs during the construction and 200-300 long-term jobs once the project begins to operate.
Furthermore, LNG Canada is expected to pay $30 per tonne on its carbon tax, which will generate an additional amount of money for the government. This project can be seen as an advancement towards responsible environmental development, while at the same time creating jobs for many Canadians.
Most experts agree climate change is reaching critical levels of accelerated change. In an effort to slow down the warming of the planet, the United Nations called for cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions. Replacing traditional fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, with natural gas is a transitory step in this process because of natural gas' lower emission rates. However, the high methane emission rates during production precludes natural gas from being a serious part of any discussion on long-term, clean energy sources for the future. Although the government of British Columbia has worked hard on phasing in legislation about natural gas, it is time for the province to move away from further investment now that numerous remedial extraction projects have begun in force.
Even if the government does not count the emissions created by natural gas from British Columbia, due to the fuel being burned in Asian countries, their shortsighted view could be adverse in the fight against climate change. The government must further invest in cleaner energy sources in order to fulfill the goal of natural gas as a transitory fuel.
Clean energy sources the province is already pursuing include renewable forms of natural gas, biomass and bio-energy, hydroelectricity, ocean energy technologies, solar, wind, and hydrogen and fuel cells. British Columbia has already begun its investment in clean energy and has implemented legislation to ease the shift away from natural gas.
As of 2017, British Columbia was beginning to be viewed unfavorably by natural gas investors because of their newly elected green government. What now must happen is for British Columbia to entice clean energy investors so it can meet its declarations on clean growth, as outlined in the Vancouver Declaration, and work on climate change mitigation.
One important goal outlined by the Canadian government has been to move away from a fossil-fuel based system. However, there is discourse on whether increasing production in the natural gas industry as a substitute complies with Canada's other commitments to reducing emissions and combating climate change. Though natural gas is promising, based on its combustion emissions and prospects as a replacement fuel, its production emissions are much higher and have a significantly larger long-term effect on overall global warming.
There is also significant concern about the extraction process, known as hydraulic fracturing. The process can contaminate water and dramatically increase the seismic activity in the area surrounding the well site. Along with these environmental concerns, extracted natural gas must be purified, which in turn emits large amounts of carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere. Both the Canadian and British Columbian governments have created legislation to decrease the output of greenhouse gases but have to balance that with the large number of jobs that natural gas companies promise to create. Approving the creation of new pipelines for gas, such as the Kitimat LNG project, does not align with the province's and country's climate agreements.
The current infrastructure and processes used for extracting and producing LNG are not advanced enough in their efficiency to legitimize natural gas as a climate change solution. If British Columbia is dedicated to its climate agreements, the only path forward is to pull back from the natural gas industry and begin to invest in alternative clean energy sources.
|This conservation resource was created by Will. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.|