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What Climate Activists Conveniently Leave Out About B.C. LNG

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Last week a group of 90 scientists and climate activists sent a letter to the federal cabinet to argue against federal approval of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project.

The activists argue that the project would make it virtually impossible for British Columbia to meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets, and that it would undermine Canada's international climate change commitments.

The B.C. minister of the environment replied by suggesting that the 90 individuals had taken a myopic view of the situation and that the 90 individuals had not taken a wide enough view of the industry.

So, who is right in this exchange?

Well, the answer is both -- with a huge proviso that there is some very important information the climate activists are careful not to talk about when it comes to the export of LNG: energy poverty in the developing world.

Developing countries are going to get electrical power to their populations -- if not with LNG, then with coal; and if not with B.C. LNG, then with dirtier LNG from one of our competitors.

According to the International Energy Agency:

Globally 1.2 billion people are without access to electricity and more than 2.7 billion people are without clean cooking facilities. More than 95 per cent of these people are either in sub-Saharan African or developing Asia, and around 80 per cent are in rural areas.

What are they using for energy? As detailed at Vox, in China tens of millions of rural households burn coal in their homes, and in India and Africa, the rural poor use wood or charcoal. From a human health perspective, the indoor air pollution associated with that energy poverty kills between 3.5 million and 4.3 million people each year.

In response to this global tragedy, a number of Asian countries are working hard to get electricity to their poorest citizens. Because it is cheaper and faster, the go-to source of this energy has been coal. India, on its own, has approximately 455 coal power plants in their energy pipeline, with an estimated 519,396 megawatts of installed generating capacity on its way. China, meanwhile, is still piling on the coal plants even as it attempts to diversify its energy mix with renewable and nuclear energy alternatives.

The major alternatives to coal are:
  • Nuclear power, which is expensive and technically-challenging to build;
  • Hydroelectric, which can't be built everywhere;
  • and natural gas.

Now, while natural gas is a fossil fuel, it produces approximately half the emissions of coal and has been described as a "bridge fuel" for these countries.

Some activists argue that these countries should switch directly to renewables, but that is simply not a viable alternative. Renewables work well in combination with other baseline energy sources but cannot be the basis of an energy grid in a developing country, irrespective of what the 100 per cent wind, water and sunlight people try to claim.

Let's go back to the PNW LNG project. According to Environment Canada (not the proponent, but Environment Canada):

The greenhouse gas intensity for the project would be 0.27 tonnes carbon dioxide per tonne of LNG produced... of the 12 worldwide projects compared, the average greenhouse gas intensity is 0.33 tonnes carbon dioxide per tonne of LNG.

Doing the simple math, the PNW LNG project has an 18 per cent lower GHG intensity than our average competitor. Moreover, according to a life cycle analysis of LNG, if the British Columbia government can electrify the extraction process, then the PNW LNG project can operate at an intensity equivalent to 80 per cent of our competitors.

What that means is that if consumers in Asia use British Columbian LNG, the global emissions for the LNG will be 20 per cent lower than LNG from our competitors. If this LNG replaces coal, the global benefit is even greater as it will produce less than half the emissions of a comparable coal plant. In both cases, B.C. LNG is better for the planet than the alternatives.

We live in a world where all the work we do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in B.C. can be undone with the flick of a pen in China or India.

The activists argue that irrespective of the improvements in global air quality, the PNW LNG project would add between 18.5 per cent and 22.5 per cent to B.C.'s total GHG emissions, and that increase would make it virtually impossible to meet the province's GHG targets by 2030.

That argument, while factual, is simply ridiculous. We live in a world where all the work we do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in B.C. can be undone with the flick of a pen in China or India. No matter what we do, those developing countries are going to get electrical power to their populations -- if not with LNG, then with coal; and if not with B.C. LNG, then with lower-intensity (read: dirtier) LNG from one of our competitors. In both cases the end result is higher global GHG emissions than if B.C. LNG was used.

Canada can be part of the global problem or part of the global solution. The 90 scientists and activists think that we should take care of our own house while ignoring the world outside our door. The B.C. government, on the other hand, has written legislation to make B.C. LNG as low-emitting as possible while working to change the accounting system to not count all the emissions from our export fuels against our provincial carbon budget. That way we can show leadership on a provincial level while also showing leadership on an international level.

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