If you have to burn a fossil fuel for power or heat, natural gas should be the first choice. Energy specialist Ian King makes the case for liquefied natural gas from British Columbia.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: natural gas is a worse climate villain than coal. It’s a bridge fuel to nowhere. British Columbia should stop trying to become a supplier of liquefied natural gas to the rest of the world.
It’s a familiar refrain, usually heard coming from green activists and the think tanks that support them. They’ll pump out occasional flurries of commentaries, flush with rhetoric and carefully picked factoids.
At first glance, the arguments seem compelling — until you take a second look. Even from a distance, the arguments against LNG don’t hold up. If you haven’t the time to go deep, simply consider the fuels’ lifecycle emissions.
University of Calgary professor Adebola Kasulu and colleagues analyzed Canadian LNG using a variety of studies of natural gas’s emissions over its whole life cycle. They included emissions from drilling, production, shipping, to burner tip. In every case, LNG had a lower CO2 equivalent impact than coal.
Even using the most pessimistic models, including one from a very harsh critic of natural gas, LNG had at least 25% fewer emissions. Most scenarios had much better results.
So what goes into British Columbia's LNG’s advantage?
BC‘s initial LNG exports will be shipped from LNG Canada in Kitimat. Like all the world’s large LNG plants, it’ll use gas turbine power — but with major emissions advantages over its international peers.
Industrial turbines’ thermal efficiency has increased close to 40% over the last few decades. LNG Canada can take full advantage of those improvements. Chilling natural gas takes less energy in cool, cloudy Kitimat than in Western Australia or Texas. By some estimates, Kitimat’s climate advantage means one-third less energy is needed to get gas to -162°C on the North Coast than it would in Australia.
Taken together with incremental improvements in process efficiency, LNG Canada has the foundation to achieve its goal of being the world’s least CO2-intense large-scale LNG plant.
Howe Sound’s Woodfibre LNG will rely on electric drive rather than burning its own gas. BC’s nearly zero-emission hydropower ensures it’ll outclass almost any LNG export plant you can name. It may not be as large as LNG Canada, but its contribution is still valuable.
In the Peace River country, emissions reduction and electrification is happening in the gas fields that will supply the feed for LNG. New processing plants, where impurities are removed and heavier hydrocarbons are extracted from the raw gas, are choosing electric power over gas. BC‘s carbon tax has played a part in shifting the sector to electrify, as has a build-out of electrical infrastructure in the Peace.
While critics have raised concerns over fugitive methane emissions, BC has responded with tighter regulations. New wells and plants will be built to tougher standards, inspected three times a year for leaks.
Some producers are already going beyond the government’s goals. Shell, the lead partner in LNG Canada, estimates its methane leakage is 0.1%. Their new wells in the Groundbirch area west of Dawson Creek have replaced gas-emitting pneumatic controls with electric ones. Other players are taking similar approaches to keep that methane where it belongs: in the sales pipeline.
Some of BC‘s LNG foes, notable the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, have taken to portraying coal in a relatively positive light in their attempts to demonize gas. It’s a monumentally silly pose.
In their world, coal can be mined, shipped easily, with scant fugitive emissions, and little fuel needed to get the stuff from mine to power plant.
Not so fast. To deliver the same energy as a ton of LNG takes 2.5 tons of Powder River Basin coal. That’s two and a half times the mass to move from the Rockies to the Coast, and then across the Pacific – no formula for saving fuel.
Coal is worse than LNG in other ways. Aside from CO2, coal has far more sulphur, mercury, and particulate emissions than gas — even with smokestack scrubbers and filters.
From BC‘s perspective, gas has a giant advantage. We produce it, and we benefit from royalties and income taxes from the sector. Our government can make sure our producers live up to their claims of being as clean as they say they are. None of that happens with Wyoming coal.
Liquefied natural gas is no cure-all for the climate challenge humanity faces. No one part of the evolving energy mix is. Gas offers a ready substitute for coal in regions that have few choices in keeping their grids up.
If you have to burn a fossil fuel for power or heat, natural gas should be the first choice.
Ian King is an instrumentation and control specialist whose work takes him all over northeastern British Columbia and northwestern Alberta. Originally from Vancouver, he now lives in Taylor, BC, at Mile 36 of the Alaska Highway. The view from his "office" is always changing, and that's just how he likes it. Follow him on Twitter at @IanKing.