What lies beneath

Jeremy Buckingham MLC via Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Over the last two years, the government of British Columbia, along with Ottawa, has become an aggressive promoter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to Asia. The get-rich scheme would require puncturing much of the province’s northern forests and farmlands with thousands of unconventional wells. 

In her government’s sales pitch, Premier Christy Clark vows that shale gas is “clean;” that exporting it to China and other Asian markets will reduce carbon emissions; and that fracking shale gas basins has little environmental impact. The province also swears that there is enough gas in the ground to last 150 years.

But a new report for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives by David Hughes, one of the nation’s smartest energy thinkers, challenges these claims and tells another story altogether. The province has lied, and lied fiercely.  

Let’s first begin with a few observations about the desirability of liquefying and then transporting natural gas around the world. Gases extracted from shale basins require enormous amounts of energy and capital to fracture, and then liquefying that fractured gas demands even more energy spending. As a result, net energy returns from shale gas are lower than most renewables including wind, geothermal and solar. In plain English, a civilization concerned about its energy security would skip LNG and just invest in renewables.

Due to its low energy density, natural gas also costs between seven and ten times more to transport than oil or coal. That explains why most natural gas is consumed where it is mined. It also explains why complex and high-cost LNG terminals may be a banker’s dream but are not a global solution to any energy problem.

No matter. The BC government swears that it has an abundant supply of shale gas to export: a fantastic 2,933 trillion cubic feet (tcf), or more than 150 years’ worth. (Canadians burn about 2.8 tcf a year.)

But energy analyst David Hughes says 2,933 tcf is a totally preposterous number. Even the province’s BC Oil and Gas Commission reports that the province has only 42 tcf of proven reserves, with a potential to climb as high 400 tcf given the right amount of cash and technology.

Premier Christie Clark vows that shale gas is "clean."...
The province has lied, and lied fiercely.

To Hughes, who has mapped many of the country’s coal and shale gas fields, the 2,933 tcf number is a blatant misrepresentation of reality, given rapid depletion rates and low recovery rates for shale gas.

Next comes the claim that burning the province’s “clean” shale gas in China will somehow reduce that nation’s dirty carbon footprint, if not global GHG emissions.

Given that shale gas fields leak on average three percent of their methane into the atmosphere (some fields leak as much as nine percent) and methane is a much more potent GHG than CO2, Hughes calculates LNG exports would makes things worse. (Given leaks and waste, it will take the extraction of 1.44 units of gas to export just one unit of gas.)

When those leakage rates are properly accounted for, “burning imported BC LNG in China would produce 27 percent more greenhouse gas emissions from the various processes in the LNG supply chain on a 20-year time frame,” in comparison with best-technology Chinese coal production, concludes Hughes.

Last but not least, the province pretends that fracking shale gas basins is totally safe and environmentally sound. One government “fact” sheet admits that fracking causes “very small, barely detectable movements underground” – but not to worry.  

In reality, the fracking of shale basins has triggered hundreds of earthquakes in Northeastern BC and many have been felt on the ground. Scientists know little about their long-term consequences. In addition, the drilling of tens of thousands of wells to fill five proposed LNG terminals would fragment the province’s boreal forest, exterminate woodland caribou and consume as much water as a city of 300,000 people.

David Hughes asks a vital question: Why aren’t we developing a long-term energy plan beyond short-term liquidation of another dirty resource for foreign markets? 

More of Nikiforuj's Energy Matrix columns here.

Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based journalist, is the author of the national bestseller Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. His latest book, The Energy of Slaves, looks at how human slavery has shaped our attitudes and values about energy. For more on Andrew visit his website at andrewnikiforuk.com


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