Think locally, act globally in addressing power generation

Fossil fuels produced in Canada would increase emissions here, but could lower them in China

Chemist Blair King: “when people say we can get off fossil fuels, the answer is, ‘No we can’t,’ because we don’t have the technology to deal with the transportation” | rob kruyt

If environmental activists are serious about tackling climate change, they should set aside parochial concerns and consider the global benefits of exporting Canadian oil and gas to China.

That was one of the key points made at a roundtable discussion last week hosted by Resource Works.

While it may sound preposterous to suggest that the solution to climate change is to produce more oil in Alberta and export B.C. gas in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), chemist Blair King and Wenran Jiang, president of the Canada-China Energy and Environment Forum, said the single biggest climate change challenge is China’s heavy reliance on coal for power generation and transportation fuels.

Replacing it with LNG and Canadian oil could result in substantial greenhouse gas (GHG)reductions, they said.

“If China changes, everything else changes along with it,” Jiang said. “If we do better in China in terms of coal reduction, global CO2 emissions go down substantially.”

China accounts for 28% of the world’s GHG emissions, and a significant amount of that comes from coal. China accounts for half of all the coal used in the world. About 66% of China’s power generation comes from burning coal. But coal is also used in China to produce gasoline and other fuels. China does not have a lot of oil and gas but does have coal, so it uses coal-to-liquids and coal-to-gas refining to produce some of its transportation fuel and chemical feedstocks. Fuel derived from coal is lower in sulphur but produces about twice the CO2 emissions that oil-derived fuels do.

“We know that Canadian oil exported – and now with emissions equivalent to American light oil – can go to China and replace the coal-to-liquid and produce the same outputs with 30% to 40% of the global emissions,” King said.

King has a PhD in chemistry and works in the field of contaminated site remediation. He also writes about energy and environmental issues.

King said environmentalists tend to be well-intentioned and media-savvy and excel at “truthiness,” even when their understanding of science is wanting.

One area of confusion that he often points out is the conflation of electrical power and energy for transportation. People who say Canada should invest in renewable energy, not pipelines, are confusing two different types of energy: one for electricity generation, the other for transportation.

While some forms of transportation can convert from gasoline to electric battery power, others can’t, or will take a very long time to do so, which means fossil fuels aren’t disappearing any time soon.

“When people say we can get off fossil fuels, the answer is, ‘No we can’t,’” King said, “because we don’t have the technology to deal with the transportation. It’s about a quarter [of global emissions], but it’s a big quarter because it’s a quarter we can’t do anything about yet. We don’t have electric trains that can go over the Rockies. We don’t have electric jetliners. We don’t have electric transport ships. All those big users of liquid fuels, we don’t have alternatives for.”

A compelling argument against pipelines, LNG and Alberta’s oilsands is that any increased production of fossil fuels will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Canada to meet its climate change objectives, as per the Paris Agreement. The problem with climate change plans under the Paris Agreement is that they are “siloed,” King said. The plans that countries adopt count only the emission increases or reductions in that country. There is no mechanism for crediting Canada – or any other exporting country  – with emissions reductions that might result in China if Canadian oil and LNG could replace coal there.

“Emissions don’t care about borders,” King said. “If B.C. raises our emissions and in doing so reduces global emissions, that’s a good thing.”

Chris Bataille, an energy and climate policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, said the argument for selling oil to China as a way to reduce emissions doesn’t hold up as well as the argument for selling LNG does.

“China is well on the way to electrifying its personal transport system, and we don’t need to be mucking that up by selling them more of our relatively higher emissions oil.”

But Bataille added that if methane emissions can be reduced in natural gas production and carbon capture and storage is used when CO2 is produced and if the gas is used to displace coal in China, “then there is an argument for selling them LNG.”