B.C. Green leader draws line in sand over LNG

Despite evidence natural gas can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Andrew Weaver vows to bring down government if it pursues LNG industry in B.C.

A switch from coal to natural gas for power generation was partly responsible for a decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2016, according to a European study.

When it comes to climate change, the world is filled with leaders who make bold commitments to renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction targets, earning praise from the public and green stars from environmental groups.

And yet it was climate change laggard the United States that appears to have achieved the greatest reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) among the major industrialized countries over the last decade.

And it has done so not in spite of the shale oil and gas revolution, but in part because of it. Turns out abundant natural gas can be a good thing for climate change, if it replaces coal for power generation, according to a report by European researchers.

The European Union’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) maintains that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions were 14% lower in 2016 than in 2005, despite population growth of 12%.

Total U.S. CO2 emissions dropped 2.7% in 2015 and 2% in 2016, according to EDGAR’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), “virtually all from fossil fuel combustion,” while Germany’s CO2 emissions rose 1% in 2016.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates emissions from the energy sector in the U.S. declined 18% over that same time period, while Germany’s emissions fell by 8.6%, according to Germany’s Ministry of Environment.

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling made natural gas so cheap in the U.S. that utilities began switching from coal to natural gas, which has roughly half the carbon content of coal.

“The continuing decline in CO2 emissions [in the U.S.] is mostly due to substitution of coal by gas and renewables in power plants,” a 2017 JRC report states.

So if natural gas can reduce GHGs by replacing coal, why is BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver threatening to bring down John Horgan’s BC NDP government if it continues to court a liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry?

After all, it is argued that LNG from B.C. could help China and other Asian nations wean themselves off coal power and reduce their own GHGs.

Weaver said there is no way B.C. could develop even a single large LNG plant, such as the $40 billion LNG Canada project, and still meet its climate action commitments, and he is prepared to bring the government down over the issue.

“I support policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no fathomable way that we can expand an LNG industry and do that,” he told Business in Vancouver.

One thing that could trigger a non-confidence vote is any change to B.C.’s LNG tax – something the industry has pushed for, since other LNG-producing jurisdictions don’t charge a special tax on the commodity.

Weaver said he doesn’t think the NDP plans to change the tax, but if it did, BC Liberal MLAs might support it, allowing any amendments to pass without the Green party’s support.

But Weaver would view any such move as a breach of the confidence and supply agreement the Greens have with the NDP.

As long as climate policies take into account only those emissions reductions or increases within a country’s borders, but not elsewhere, Weaver might be right that B.C. will find it tough, if not impossible, to meet its climate action targets with an LNG industry.

As he points out, B.C.’s current emissions are 64 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year, and B.C.’s climate action plan commits it to bringing that down to just 12 Mt CO2e per year by 2050 – an 80% reduction.

In a recent tweet, Weaver said a single large LNG plant would produce 10 Mt CO2e per year, leaving little wiggle room for the environment minister in charge of meeting B.C.’s targets. But that 10 Mt figure Weaver is using is based on a big unknown.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency calculated LNG Canada’s annual emissions would be 3.9 Mt CO2e per year, not 10 Mt.

Weaver said his estimates came from the Pembina Institute, which forecast that GHGs from LNG Canada would be 8.6 Mt CO2e in 2020 and 9.6 Mt CO2e by 2050.

It appears the Pembina calculations include fugitive methane and other upstream emissions not included i nthe CEAA assessment. However, there is a significant data gap on fugitive methane emissions, so any calculation is guesswork.

“I would suggest that 3.9 Mt is too low and 10 is possible, but a number in between could be achieved with suitable regulation and investment in running a tight ship, capture of leaks at the wellhead and efficient compression and conveyance,” said Hadi Dowlatabadi, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

Dowlatabadi said a large LNG project could be accommodated within B.C.’s climate change targets, but at a cost that would outweigh the economic benefits.

“In order to meet our targets, B.C. will have to impose costly measures on everyone,” he said.

“By my back-of-envelope calculations, the added emissions impose a larger cost of mitigation on citizens of B.C. than the benefits accrued to B.C. from the LNG. Therefore, even if LNG is good business for the developer … it is undoubtedly bad business for B.C.”

Asked if he thinks B.C. could see an LNG industry develop in the province and still meet its climate change targets, B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman suggested it would require getting the emissions profiles of LNG proposals down through things like electrifying the gas fields of northeastern B.C. and reducing fugitive emissions.

He is working with the Climate Action Secretariat to crunch the numbers to see if it is possible.

“Our commitment is to work with the Green party on this very important issue of climate change,” Heyman said. “We take it very seriously. But the premier’s been clear with me – ‘Get us the numbers so we know what we’re talking about’ – because our climate commitments are firm.”

It is worth noting that methane emissions from the natural gas sector are happening now in B.C. and would continue even if not a single LNG plant is ever built in the province.

See related story: "Gas could help put brakes on on climate change."