Despite what MLA Ellis Ross would have you believe in his paid-advertising column of April 26th, LNG is not a greenhouse gas (GHG) panacea. It is unclear on what information Ross is basing his statement that “LNG is the pathway to a greener future”, but a review of recent research shows he’s mistaken.
Ross is correct that natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, reducing GHG emissions by up to 60 per cent if it replaces coal. Numerous incidentals in the full lifecycle of each fossil fuel chip away at this savings, however, including energy needed for extraction and shipping, efficiencies of overseas power plants, and current country-specific fuel consumption. Recent research led by scientists at the University of Calgary (Kasumu et al., Environ. Sci. Technol., 2018) completes lifecycle assessment of emissions from Western Canada natural gas shipped to global markets via Kitimat. This paper does find a “net environmental benefit in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reduction when importing Canadian natural gas for electricity generation.” Note, however, the benefit is relatively marginal and that critical known unknowns could make the GHG savings a wash or even result in a net GHG increase.
The study finds life cycle emissions of Western Canada natural gas to vary from 557 to 855 gCO2eq/kWh (GHG emissions per unit energy) depending on the destination country. The dirtiest of coal-fired power plants have life cycle emissions of up to 910 gCO2eq/kWh. This means that if Western Canada natural gas is used in place of coal we might realize GHG emissions savings of between six and 39 per cent.
These numbers, however, are optimistic for a number of reasons. First is that we do not know how much methane escapes to the atmosphere during extraction and transportation. This is critical, to the point that Kasumu et al. state “the ultimate magnitude of the emissions associated with natural gas production systems is still unknown”. (Not quite sure how you can find a “net environmental benefit” without knowing the “magnitude of the emissions”).
Second is the issue of what energy is being displaced by natural gas. China is closing in on its 2020 goal to have every existing coal plant in the country to be of the utmost efficiency. This means that we would be replacing a 740 gCO2eq/kWh coal plant instead of a 910 gCO2eq/kWh coal plant, either making the GHG emissions gains yet more marginal or perhaps resulting in an increase in net GHG emissions. Furthermore, as countries move towards their emissions targets (which get more challenging with time) there will be an ever-greater push towards renewables, particularly with prices continuing to drop. It’s possible that development of LNG now might hinder adoption of renewables.
Commitment now to a multi-decade LNG partnership might be marginally beneficial in the short term, but an emissions and perhaps even financial liability within a few decades.
Finally, let’s assume that LNG Canada does go ahead and that when all is said and done we get some middle-of-the road emissions savings of 25 per cent. This savings must be put in context of the ultimate challenge of keeping a liveable climate, a goal that requires humanity to move towards zero net emissions. Ross states “Andrew Weaver and the Green Party believe they have exclusive rights to the way we eventually transition our economy away from fossil fuels.” This is a cheap political jab, and patently false. It might be, however, that Andrew Weaver and the Green Party have an exclusive vision of the reality and enormity of the challenge facing us.
There are other externalities to this debate not mentioned here, including improved air quality with natural gas, water resources used in Canada for extraction, financial impacts, earthquakes from hydraulic fracturing and more. There certainly is a debate to be had over whether Western Canada LNG should go forward, but MLA Ross’ justification that it is the pathway to a greener future is misguided.