Two years before LNG Canada — the country’s largest liquefied natural gas plant — comes online, a new report is warning the fossil gas will not act as the “bridge fuel” to wean the world off coal as proponents make it out to be.
The study, commissioned by the David Suzuki Foundation and released Thursday, draws on peer-reviewed research and work done by the International Energy Agency to find the export of gas from B.C. will make the climate crisis worse, not better.
Instead of a “bridge fuel” to wean other countries off coal and oil, the export of B.C. LNG will be “too little, too late” and a “bridge too close,” according to Daniel Horen Greenford, the report’s author and a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University researching climate policy.
“Government, the public has been told by industry quite a bit of the merits of gas,” Horen Greenford said. “This kind of narrative is something that may have been more true 10 to 20 years ago. But at this point, there's just not a plausible or credible place for gas as a bridge fuel.”
“The conversation needs to catch up with the science.”
The argument gas should be used as a bridge to decarbonizing the economy is based on three claims, Horen Greenford says: first, that gas is less carbon-intensive than coal or oil; second, that exports of B.C. gas will displace those fuels overseas; and third, that renewable energy like wind and solar are not affordable enough to deploy at a scale, the report says.
None of those claims, according to Horen Greenford’s analysis, are accurate.
Asked to comment on the report, a spokesperson for Woodfibre LNG said once built it’s plant would be “the lowest-emission facility in the world” and the first to achieve net-zero emissions when it opens in 2027.
LNG Canada released a statement saying the facility would play a leading role displacing coal-fired power plants with “responsibly-sourced, low-GHG LNG.” The statement said the emissions produced by Canada’s Kitimat operation will be more than a third lower than the world's best performing facilities.
“LNG Canada is designed to have the lowest carbon intensity of any large-scale LNG export facility of a similar size operating in the world today,” said the spokesperson.
A spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said B.C. has a “significant advantage in the transition to net-zero" because of “abundant, affordable renewable electricity.”
He added: “Our CleanBC climate action plan has strong measures to make sure we hit our emissions targets by 2030 and put us on the path to achieve later targets, including our commitment to be net-zero by 2050.”
Methane’s impact on climate increasingly questioned
The main ingredient in brand names like “natural gas” or liquefied natural gas (LNG), methane has a global warming potential of 82.5 times worse than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years it’s released into the atmosphere.
The gas is thought to be responsible for about 20 per cent of present global warming, with extracting and burning fossil fuels accounting for one-fifth of that, according to the report.
Horen Greenford cites studies that in recent years have suggested fossil fuel’s contribution to methane warming could be underestimated by between 20 and 60 per cent. He says that similar methods have shown more than half of increased emissions from fossil fuels globally are linked to an increase in shale gas production in North America.
Much of that methane comes from “fugitive emissions,” gas leaked into the atmosphere during the extraction process or along the supply chain. One of the most authoritative synthesis studies in the world found 2.3 per cent of gross gas production is lost to the atmosphere in this way, the researcher said.
Often the leaks occur during major events, like in 2018 when the rupture of an Enbridge pipeline near Prince George, B.C., released 140 million cubic feet of gas.
In recent decades, fugitive emissions during the conventional gas extraction process have been reduced with industry efficiencies. But as unconventional gas production, or “fracking,” becomes the dominant form of production, Horen Greenford says that trend appears to be turning around.
In Canada, fugitive emissions from oil and gas production have already been revised upward by 33 per cent. And while there are encouraging signs the federal and B.C. governments are moving to clamp down on fugitive emissions, Horen Greenford found “there remains a large discrepancy between government inventories and the latest science.”
Fugitive emissions don't end at Canada's borders. Once that gas reaches overseas markets, there are a number of places along the supply chain where gas leaks can once again add to LNG’s carbon intensity.
So while it’s accurate to say that compared to coal or oil, LNG emits fewer emissions when burned, once you consider leaks along the entire production and distribution system, those advantages are quickly diminished, and under certain conditions, wiped out, the study found.
Even in a hypothetical world where methane leaks were brought to very low levels across the supply chain, gas would produce roughly 30 per cent fewer emissions over its life cycle.
Horen Greenford calculates that at that rate, the “bridge fuel” would not be enough to reach climate targets.
“The climate benefit will be reversed,” he said.
Displacing coal with gas ‘unrealistic’ as world moves to renewables
Horen Greenford also examined claims gas is an ideal “bridge fuel” that would wean poorer countries off coal power plants.
Like many countries across the world, Canada has agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To do that, humanity will need to drop its consumption of coal by 95 per cent, oil by 60 per cent, and gas by 45 per cent compared to 2019 levels, according to one pathway modelled by scientists working through the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But Horen Greenford says research published earlier this year shows those models rely too much on declines in coal to meet global climate change targets. In a study published in the journal Nature, Swiss and British researchers found limiting warming to 1.5 C would require carbon emissions reductions in richer countries to be 50 per cent more rapid than current models suggest.
Given that, Horen Greenford says phasing out coal over gas is “unrealistic” because — while it allows richer countries to continue burning more oil and gas — poorer countries don’t have the capacity to phase out coal at those rates.
That all means the pace of phasing out oil and gas in places like North America and Europe will likely need to proceed faster than previously thought, Horen Greenford concluded.
“The energy infrastructure added in Canada over the current decade has a critical role to play in shaping this future and in making climate targets easier or more difficult to achieve,” concluded the researcher.
In B.C., LNG Canada Phase 1 is expected to be completed in 2025, when it will move to export 14 million tonnes of LNG every year. At that time, it will become the province’s biggest carbon polluter, emitting the equivalent of 20 per cent of B.C.’s emissions in 2020.
Announced last month, B.C.’s new energy action framework includes an oil and gas emissions cap that would force down the sector’s carbon pollution 33 to 38 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030. That’s largely expected to be achieved through making the extraction process more efficient so it doesn’t release as much methane and electrifying of the liquefaction process with hydro power.
A spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said its recently announced New Energy Action Framework would reduce methane emissions and develop a cap on oil and gas emissions so they don't blow B.C.'s targets, among other measures.
“With our new framework, B.C. won’t be left behind — we will be a leader in that clean energy future,” wrote the spokesperson.
Diverting electricity from other uses could present its own set of problems. Alone, the proposed Woodfibre LNG facility in Squamish, B.C., would require nearly two and a half times Site C’s entire electricity output. And as B.C. moves to decarbonize, new clean industries and a growing electric car market will be forced to compete for limited clean power, the study says.
A recent study by the Pembina Institute concluded that if LNG Canada and Woodfibre were to come online, the gas production needed to feed the terminals would double B.C.’s 2030 sectoral targets without a hard ceiling.
But Horen Greenford’s analysis found that even with an emissions cap on oil and gas, B.C. LNG exports would make global warming worse.
Ramping up gas exports undermines shift to renewables, studies claim
Proponents of gas as a “bridge fuel” also claim renewables aren’t ready to be deployed at scale, says Horen Greenford.
But according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), wind and solar energy are already the cheapest way to build new electricity capacity in the history of humanity.
“The argument put forward generally is that we're going to displace dirtier fuels. That's going to lower emissions globally, even if it increases emissions domestically. The problem with that is, that's not the whole picture,” Horen Greenford said.
He says studies have shown that when you increase gas supply, its price goes down, making it more attractive and discouraging countries from investing in solar or renewable energy.
“You discourage them from building renewables because you're gonna actually make gas cheaper,” said Horen Greenford. “And then you end up locking out renewables.”
The researcher echoed data from the IEA showing there's enough gas currently being produced and developed to satisfy global demand and still transition fast enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
In some of Asia’s more advanced economies like South Korea, Horen Greenford pointed to research that shows the country is five years away from renewables outcompeting future gas plant projects.
And in Europe, Horen Greenford cites studies that show the European Union will be off Russian gas by the time B.C.’s LNG projects are online in 2025. Even currently approved projects, like LNG Canada Phase 2 and Woodfibre LNG, won’t be needed if the world hits the Paris climate accord target, he said.
“This is not the time to be expanding gas where we're going to be seeing the stability and cost of renewables improving a lot, probably in the next 10 years,” said Horen Greenford. “We're just making this choice harder by adding this to global supply.”
A case to cap LNG growth
Horen Greenford said he’s not blind to the current demand for gas, especially in hard-to-decarbonize sectors, or to make up for peak energy demand over the short-term.
Where the public conversation is missing sound economic and climate policy, he said, is around the drawbacks of scaling up gas production.
“This is already being met, matched and then some by producers that are way ahead of Canada. The Gulf countries in particular,” he said.
“We think it’s a greenwashing story,” said John Young, an energy transition specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation. “This flies completely in the face of all climate science and a growing climate emergency.”
Young said he submitted the report’s findings to B.C. Premier David Eby’s office and two ministries. He said it’s “very unlikely” the government will walk back support for LNG Canada or Woodfibre LNG, especially as we get closer to 2024, an election year. He hopes the evidence presented in the report will help inform approval of several other LNG projects currently being considered across the province.
“We know that the David Eby government came in willing to take a new look at LNG,” he said. “I know they’ve struggled internally, especially with some First Nations embracing LNG as a road out of poverty.”
“I just don’t think British Columbians and Canadians fully understand what LNG is.”