Natural gas is today the darling of governments, corporations, and of course, shareholders. For governments, gas means big royalties into government coffers, a tax-paying, busy workforce, and a business lobby without much to whine about. For corporations - exploration and drilling companies, pipeline companies, electrical cogeneration vendors, and construction outfits, gas means busy and profitable. For shareholders, its a happy move to Easy Street.
Andrew Nikiforuk had a look at the resource on which all this buoyancy
and optimism is floating, and concluded that there's trouble ahead.
The resource, natural gas, is not in limitless supply. Like all
the other natural bounty that we have exploited - salmon and cod,
beaver and bison, gold and timber - natural gas, too, will run out.
And we're rushing toward the day of reckoning faster than those
making hay while this particular sun is shining, would have us believe.
Mr. Nikiforuk's article, Running on empty - when Canada's natural
gas reserves hit the crisis point, Canadian Business, July 10/24,
2000, is on the Canadian Business website at
Mr. Nikiforuk got one thing wrong, though. He said that natural
gas was "clean", without mentioning that it is a major greenhouse
gas contributor, just like all the other hydrocarbons. So I wrote
a letter to Canadian Business, to correct that error. You can find
that letter below, on this page. I was asked for some references
for statements I made, and it seemed like there might be enough
interest to put together a companion webpage for readers who would
want to follow up on some of the issues discussed in both Mr. Nikiforuk's
article, and my letter. That explains this page.
SqWALK!, incidentally, is a website originally developed as an online resource for discussion of issues of concern to the community of Cobble Hill. When BC's electrical utility, BC Hydro, and an American pipeline company, Williams, arrived in town with their glossy brochures to tell us they were putting a natural gas pipeline through our community, we balked. SqWALK! found a mission as it quickly became the communications hub for individuals and organizations who were concerned about, and mostly opposed to, the pipeline. You can find out a lot more about the Georgia Strait Crossing (GSX) Pipeline Project elsewhere on SqWALK!.
but wrong on one very important issue
August 3, 2000
Editor, Canadian Business
Andrew Nikiforuk's article (Running on empty - when Canada's natural
gas reserves hit the crisis point, July 10/24, 2000, http://www.canbus.com/magazine_items/2000/july10_00_nogas.shtml)
is a necessary message to a continent, a country, governments, regulators
and an industry besotted with the potential earnings from Canada's
natural gas supply.
The conventional opinion is that current high gas prices are due
to inadequate infrastructure (read: pipelines) to move gas to urban
markets. Nikiforuk quotes a number of analysts and industry insiders
who know better. Today's prices are pointing to a more insidious
trend - we're running out of gas.
On one very important issue, though, Nikiforuk is dreadfully wrong
with his facts. He says: "...a gas-fired generator doesn’t ... pollute
the air or saddle future generations with horrendous environmental
burdens." Wrong. wrong, wrong.
Burning natural gas creates carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse
gas (GHG), which causes global warming. And global warming is the
most serious environmental problem the earth faces. Just like burning
oil, burning gasoline, burning coal, or burning anything else, carbon
is released into the atmosphere when burning natural gas. Natural
gas is nearly as bad as any other combustible in that respect. Because
it burns more efficiently than other hydrocarbons, however, the
net GHG output per unit of heat energy, is less.
But natural gas may be worse in some respects, because natural gas
consists mainly of methane (CH4), which leaks out of everything.
In storage, in transmission, everywhere - natural gas is leaking
methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas with a
nominal "carbon dioxide equivalent" rating of 21, meaning its GHG
effect is deemed 21 times that of CO2.
Natural gas nets out to about two-thirds the GHG contributor of
oil or coal. In parts of the world where natural gas is a replacement
for oil, coal, or nuclear generation of electricity, there is a
valid environmental argument for switching to natural gas from a
less efficient hydrocarbon. Of course, if you are not burning anything
to make electricity, there is a strong environmental argument not
to start using natural gas.
In terms of the relative quantity of other polluting or toxic byproducts,
natural gas is relatively "cleaner" than the other hydrocarbons.
Nitrous oxides (NOX), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2),
other volatile organic compounds (VOC) like formaldehyde and benzene,
and particulate matter (PM) - these are all part of the airborne
toxic stew that results from burning natural gas. "Cleaner", perhaps,
but by no means clean.
The real environmental alternative, though, is to avoid GHG production
altogether; to get into wind, tide, solar generation, and fuel cell
technologies. Wind in particular, is the alternative of choice in
much of northern Europe.
The real cost/benefit alternative, given the price predictions for
gas in Mr. Nikiforuk's article, is also to move away from hydrocarbons.
An interesting practical case is British Columbia. BC Hydro, British
Columbia's electrical utility, plans to utilize natural gas for
most future electricity production in the province. The two fundamental
arguments they use to make the case for natural gas are that it
is the "clean" option, and the "lowest cost" option.
But they forecast natural gas prices of a mere $2.00 (US) per thousand
cubic feet in 2007. Mr. Nikiforuk observes prices as high as $5.80
(Cdn?) already this year, and worse to come. The "lowest cost" argument
seems unfounded, and badly flawed.
As for the "clean" option, BC produced less than 1.3 million tonnes
of CO2 equivalent per year from electricity production, in 1996.
The three natural gas burning cogeneration facilities planned for
Vancouver Island alone will generate around 4 million tonnes. Cleaner
With respect to the specific question of the carbon dioxide equivalency
of methane, the standard reference is: "The Science of Climate Change"
Contribution of Working Group I to the Second Assessment of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1996) JT Houghton, LG
Meira Filho, BA Callender, N Harris, A Kattenberg and K Maskell
(Eds) Cambridge University Press, UK. pp 572
It is this reference (table 4, page 22) that forms the basis for
the calculations and agreements of the Kyoto Protocol of the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1),
and for virtually all official GHG measures and representations.
Unfortunately, it is not available online, so I can only quote documents
that cite the reference. There are many online references to "global
warming potential" that will get you this same information, however.
A very good general discussion of climate change, is Environment
Canada's "The Science of Climate Change" (2).
The following is from that document:
See the attached table of relative global warming potentials:
"The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is an attempt to provide policy
makers with a means of comparing the relative climatic effects of
the various greenhouse gases with that of an equivalent emission of
CO2. "The indicated GWP values are calculated by integrating the effect
of emissions on the climate over the next 100 years. "Molecule for
molecule, CO2 is the least effective of the major greenhouse gases.
Methane, by comparison, absorbs and reradiates about 21 times as much
The Greenhouse Gas Division of Environment Canada, (http://www.ec.gc.ca/pdb/ghg/),
sometimes uses a methane equivalency factor of 24.5 (3),
rather than the more generally accepted factor of 21.
While we're on the subject, let me also point out that Canada is
doing a deplorable job of meeting its commitments made in Kyoto
in 1997. There we agreed to reduce our GHG output from 1990 levels.
1990 levels were 577 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2e (4).
In 1994, they were 615 Mt (5). By 1997 we were
up to 682 Mt (and had fudged our 1990 level up to 601 Mt from 577)
Methane (CH4) is the primary constituent (90-95%) of natural gas.
When methane is burned, the principal products of combustion are carbon
dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O). All three of these are greenhouse
gases when in the atmosphere.
Examination of ancient ice cores from Arctic and Antarctic ice masses,
suggests that nature passes through cyclical phases of increased
and decreased amounts of GHG, and associated global mean temperatures
(7). What is different today, is that the GHG
mix has changed, with the addition of unnatural and unprecedented
levels of methane due almost exclusively to burning hydrocarbons.
Atmospheric methane does not so readily or naturally become reabsorbed
into non-atmospheric "sinks", and the greenhouse warming effect of
increased methane could be more severe than the "21 times" factor
The big global warming domino that we are increasingly
likely to topple, is the "runaway effect". If the earth gets too warm,
there will be nothing we can do (or stop doing, more accurately) to
stop it. Once the polar ice packs melt too far, the oceans get too
warm, the oceanic and atmospheric currents slow down or stop suddenly
- we will have pushed our lovely planet past a point of no return.
(2) "The Science of Climate Change",
(3) "Development of Canada's National Action Program on Climate
(5) "Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Gas", http://www.ec.gc.ca/pdb/ghg/ghgdoc/bigtabl.html
(6) "Canada's Greenhouse Gas Inventory", http://www.ec.gc.ca/pdb/ghg/english/docs/gh_eng.pdf
Science of Climate Change"