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B.C. gas projects could triple emissions target by 2030, finds report

A recent report found B.C. will blow its oil and gas emissions target without a cap. But that path requires diverting a huge amount of electricity needed elsewhere, experts warn.
Wioodfibrealvarez Getty Imgas
Computer generated image of carrier ship with LNG tanks transported by sea. The low-carbon liquefaction of gas before transport requires huge amounts of electricity.

The approval of several B.C. gas projects could triple the province’s emissions targets for the oil and gas sector by the end of the decade unless a hard ceiling is put on the industry’s carbon pollution, a new report says.

The report, published last week by the climate research group the Pembina Institute, found that the completion of only two plants — Kitimat's LNG Canada Phase 1 and Squamish's proposed Woodfibre LNG plant — would double B.C.'s 2030 target for the fossil fuel sector. If another four proposed projects were approved without a cap on emissions, greenhouse gases from the production of fossil fuels would likely triple the government’s end-of-decade targets. 

“We really, really need that policy,” Jan Gorski, director of oil and gas at the Pembina Institute and co-author of the report, said of the oil and gas cap.

“It's gonna define both the emissions trajectory but also the economic trajectory in this province.”

The B.C. government committed to an oil and gas cap as part of its New Energy Action Framework, a plan announced in March 2023 to reduce emissions from the industry between a third and 38 per cent below 2007 levels. But the details have yet to be worked out.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy welcomed the report but said Pembina's emission forecasts were “significantly higher” than the province’s estimates. The spokesperson said that's largely because the B.C. government's model assumes a large percentage of natural gas going to LNG facilities will be diverted from other uses, "like pipeline exports," instead of coming from new B.C. gas production.

“This leads to a large reduction in new upstream emissions in the B.C. model,” wrote the ministry spokesperson in an email, referring to the extraction and shipping of gas.

Report warns of massive LNG electricity demand

In the past, the B.C. government has repeatedly failed to meet its own emissions reduction targets.

Its current CleanBC roadmap aims to turn that failure around and reduce emissions 40 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030. By then, the government says all new buildings and 90 per cent of all light-duty vehicles will produce zero emissions. The province says it will become net-zero by mid-century, absorbing as much carbon emissions as it produces, and doing its part to avoid fallout from global warming. 

In the oil and gas sector, a lot of the emissions reductions are expected to come through electrification of LNG processing, according to Gorski.

Many LNG terminals use natural gas-powered turbines to liquefy gas, which in a super-cooled form is safer and more efficient to transport by ship. Electrify those processes and you can cut down emissions at an LNG plant, at fracking operations and in the transport of the gas. 

But when Gorski ran the numbers through a model, he and his colleagues found the scale of electricity B.C.'s LNG projects would need in the coming years was immense, and could put them in direct competition with other industries looking to decarbonize.

LNG Canada, Woodfibre LNG and their upstream processes alone would consume 13 terawatt hours (TWh) of extra electricity, 2.5 times more than BC Hydro’s Site C dam. If all proposed and planned LNG projects were approved, they would place a 40-TWh demand on the electric grid — equivalent to nearly two-thirds of B.C.’s annual electricity consumption, Gorski said.

He said BC Hydro needs to “do the math” to figure out how much electricity it can supply to LNG terminals while still electrifying the province's buildings, mining sector, growing electric vehicle fleet, and clean energy projects that haven’t yet surfaced.

“We still need to electrify other sectors of the economy,” he said.

A spokesperson for BC Hydro said the corporation is planning “for all scenarios” and that it could meet future demand through a number of different policies, such as better energy efficiency measures, voluntary time-of-use rates, or by ramping up solar and wind projects that are quicker to build than hydroelectric dams.

“We currently have a surplus of clean electricity,” said BC Hydro spokesperson Mora Scott.

“Delivering clean and affordable power to British Columbians is our priority and to do that we have to get the timing right and that’s exactly what we are planning for.”

B.C.'s surplus of clean electricity a 'myth'

Roland Clift, an energy expert at the University of British Columbia currently advising the province, said he hasn’t checked all the modelling in the Pembina report, but that its conclusions largely match his own.

“There's this continuing myth in British Columbia that we have surplus, low-carbon electricity,” said Clift, a past member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“The province needs to look seriously at the question: What is the best thing to do with the limited supply that we've got?”

Clift partially agrees with BC Hydro’s emphasis on creating more efficiencies in the current grid. He said that by his calculations, installing more energy efficient heating and cooling devices like heat pumps gives you the best carbon emission reductions for your money.

“Where Pembina have got it spot on is that Site C is already fully committed. There isn't any [electricity] to spare,” said the adjunct professor in UBC’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“So any new electrical demand, raises the question, where is the electricity going to come from?”

An analysis Clift carried out with his UBC colleagues in 2022 found the province needs to seriously accelerate the construction of wind turbines to fill the gap. In his advisor role with the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, he says the civil servants he works with appear to understand the problem, but he has no way of knowing if that message is reaching politicians higher up in the ministry.

So far, he said, the pace of building wind turbines suggests to him the province isn’t taking the prospect of competing electricity demands seriously enough.

If B.C. fails to make up its electricity shortfall, Clift said B.C. may be forced to import dirtier electric power from outside its borders, thereby making the production of gas — as well as everything else with a button or switch in the province — more carbon intensive.

“This is an example of putting the cart before the horse,” Clift said.

“Until we've actually got the electrical supply decarbonized and enough to meet demand, we’re gonna keep making mistakes like this.”