Opinion

This feast can give us all unwanted gas

In all the giddiness created by sudden wealth, it is often useful to step back, re-examine what’s going on, and remember the caveat, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” That may be particularly true for us here in the northwest.

For a couple of decades, the region has been suffering the ‘bust’ trough typical of ‘boom-bust’ economies, so it’s small wonder  citizens here are salivating for some ‘boom.’

And now energy, particularly natural gas, is being trumpeted as the avenue to riches.

Only recently, the front page of this publication identified a proposal by Veresen Inc. to construct a gas-fired electricity generating station on Terrace’s Skeena Industrial Development Park, perhaps to help power all the mines planned for the northwest in future. Boom!

Both political parties enjoyed corporate political donations in this May’s election, particularly from energy and resource corporations. Both parties welcomed planned expansion in natural gas production for export and increased mining activity.

With the ‘business party’ re-elected, it would be unrealistic to expect much except full speed ahead regarding plans for expansion. Boom!

Still, the hype regarding energy development seems bloated and, well, gassy. We need to go more slowly on these projects.

As Leslie Campbell argued in Focus online, a publication based in Victoria, “Can we really expect the BC Liberals to be totally unbiased about the pipelines set to advance across our province when they have accepted donations amounting to $453k from energy heavyweight Encana—or even $47k from Enbridge—in the past four years? Or to be open to the possibility that fracking for natural gas is too risky to watersheds when they are beholden to companies like Apache ($23k), Chevron ($21k), Talisman ($49k), Fortis ($34k), and Imperial Oil ($41k)?”

Most of the new natural gas slated for export will come from horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing. While fracking has accessed dramatic quantities of gas, it is hardly without cost or risk.

First, if gas drilling in B.C. is anything like fracking for oil in the vast shale areas in the U.S., depletion rates can present a serious economic problem. In August, Shell announced a $2.1 billion write-down of assets in some of its recent fracking properties. Average decline rates in the first year of production in the Bakken are 60 to 70 percent, according to The Oil Drum.

Producers are drilling thousands of new wells simply to sustain production at current levels, or to nudge it up slightly. Only rising prices for oil can justify such frenetic exploration and drilling activity. Ask Shell. Bust!

Second, fracking demands huge quantities of water that is transformed into a toxic and probably irremediable mess once the process is finished. Harm to water resources can, and likely will, damage existing economies. Contamination of groundwater is of particular concern. Bust!

Third, the fact that humans can pump increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere does not mean that we should. Very few people want to look at climate change evidence too closely.

But ignoring or pretending a problem doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. Global warming is not just some distant practical problem, it’s a current moral one. Bust!

Fourth, the U.S. National Institutes of Health estimates that the costs of health impacts from fossil fuel electricity in the U.S. range from 2.5 to 6 per cent of GDP! For coal and oil-fired generation, the cost of health impacts is greater than the typical retail price of electricity! Gas may be cleaner, but it’s not without its capacity for damage. Bust!

Fifth, although any single energy project in the region might be relatively benign in its impacts, the cumulative impact of many projects will likely be very serious, indeed, especially with respect to atmospheric sulphur oxides and particulates from burning fuels. Bust!

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory estimates that up to 55 per cent of energy generated from all sources is simply wasted.

We could save ourselves a lot of trouble with a concerted international effort toward efficiency and renewables rather than toward expanding fossil fuel production.

Fossil fuels are killing us. It’s time to wean ourselves off them.

Al Lehmann is a retired teacher living in Terrace, B.C.

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