Tom Pedersen & Kathryn Harrison, Vancouver Sun, July 4, 2012
Redefining dirty as clean is no way to cut emissions
In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, a bewildered Alice encounters Humpty Dumpty spouting nonsense. When she asks for clarification, Humpty Dumpty scornfully responds, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
British Columbia voters could be forgiven for feeling like Alice in Wonderland after learning of premier Christy Clark's proposal to revise B.C.'s definition of "clean energy" to allow burning of natural gas to power LNG exports. What was once dirty has been declared clean.
Lurking behind B.C.'s "clean energy" plan is a reversal of two internationally-applauded climate policies. At issue is the plan to triple B.C.'s production of natural gas, via hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in unconventional gas reservoirs. The gas will then be shipped through pipelines to the north coast, where it will be liquefied and exported to Asia.
B.C.'s natural gas strategy calls for construction of three liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants by 2020. The province has committed that the first two will be powered by renewable energy, but has acknowledged that the third plant will need to rely on electricity generated by natural gas.
Combustion of natural gas, with the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, directly conflicts with B.C.'s commitment, adopted in 2008, to zero-emissions electricity. The premier asserts that only gas burned for the purposes of LNG exports will be exempted, on the grounds that B.C.'s natural gas will displace Asian customers' reliance on even dirtier fuels.
However, that does not necessarily follow. Depending on relative demand and prices, B.C.'s gas may substitute for emissions-free electricity, including renewables and Japanese nuclear power, or simply increase energy use. In fact, this is what academic energy analysts, including SFU's Mark Jaccard, predict will happen. The strong implication is that B.C.'s gas exports will increase, not decrease, global emissions.
Moreover, even if natural gas did substitute for coal or oil in the short term, there is the longer term to consider. Global energy and economy models all have concluded that we need to begin reducing our reliance on even natural gas within the next few years if we are to meet scientifically-defensible global emissions targets for 2050.
In other words, the planet has run out of time for a "transition fuel."
We need to start investing in renewable energy and conservation now, rather than building fossil fuel facilities expected to operate for several decades.
The idea that certain energy uses can be quarantined also defies reason. The real problem is that it is extremely energy intensive to liquefy natural gas to prepare it for export by tanker - a step that is not necessary if the gas is used within North America.
The first three LNG plants are expected to demand 15,000 GWh of electricity annually, an amount just short of BC Hydro's current residential electricity demand for the entire province: 17,650 GWh.
That electricity could be put to alternate uses that are both more cost - and environmentally - effective. In particular, if we are to meet our own emissions targets, we will need the clean energy currently committed to the first two LNG plants to displace our own reliance on fossil fuels, for instance via transition to plug-in electric vehicles. Clean hydro power used to support fossil fuel exports will not be available to substitute for fossil-fuel-generated electricity within North America.
LNG production not only threatens B.C.'s commitment to clean energy, but also the province's legally binding commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The additional emissions from powering just one LNG plant with natural gas and from upstream production of natural gas through unconventional fracking are projected to increase B.C.'s emissions by 22 per cent, or 15 million tonnes of CO2.
B.C.'s natural gas strategy thus will make it impossible for B.C. to meet its already-challenging target to reduce emissions by 33 per cent by 2020. Not surprisingly, last month the premier also mused that we may need to revise our emissions targets, yet again defining away the problem.
As the premier of the government of British Columbia, Christy Clark's words matter a great deal more than Humpty Dumpty's - and as such, she must be accountable for them. In 2008, B.C declared to the world that we would be a global leader in dealing with the immense challenge of global warming. Four years later our policies are showing signs of success.
But all will be for naught if we insist on redefining dirty as clean.
Tom Pedersen is a professor and executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at the University of Victoria, and Kathryn Harrison is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.
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