“This is a spectacular day for all British Columbians, again not one that happened today, not one that happened yesterday but one that has happened over the past few decades. I can’t tell you how proud and pleased I am to have the opportunity to lead the government to work with all levels of government to make life better for British Columbians. I can’t stop smiling.”
That was John Horgan, the Premier of British Columbia, declaring his support for, what, a plan to tackle unaffordable housing? Ending the fentanyl crisis? A major infrastructure project that will lower the frustration of Lower Mainland commuters?
No, what Premier Horgan was smiling about on October 2nd, was the signing of a final investment decision by LNG Canada. Flanked by industry leaders and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Horgan said that despite belching out 3.45 megatonnes of carbon emissions a year, BC would meet its climate change goals of cutting greenhouses gases by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. The Pembina Institute estimates that between LNG Canada and Woodfibre LNG, the other, so far, approved BC liquefied natural gas project, the plants will increase annual carbon pollution by 9.1 megatonnes by 2030 and 10.2MG by 2050. But the targets will be met, somehow. Trust us.
To actually meet the province’s climate change goal, massive carbon cuts would have to be made elsewhere. The government says it’s currently rolling out a new climate plan. We’re not expecting any dramatic revelations.
China, Russia and Canada’s current climate policies would drive the world above
a catastrophic 5C of warming by the end of the century, according to a study
that ranks the climate goals of different countries.
Of course, it was the lure of the buck that made Horgan and his Cabinet become sudden converts to LNG, despite opposing it while in Opposition to the Christy Clark Liberals (Horgan said at the time that LNG was giving up too much revenue to attract foreign investment – ironic now, considering the NDP gave LNG Canada a $5.3B tax break), who came up with the idea with much fanfare – even promising to pay off the provincial debt with the windfall of LNG cash.
The NDP says the LNG Canada project will bring in $22 billion over 40 years.
That sounds pretty good, but it assumes there are no costs associated with building a new LNG industry in BC. A fossil-fuel-intensive industry that goes against the prevailing mood (excluding the Trump Administration) of weaning ourselves off carbon through the use of cleaner technology like nuclear energy and renewables.
But there are costs. And they could be huge. Much greater than $22 billion. Why? Because the BC LNG industry is being built at exactly the wrong time. We know that climate change is upon us. Yes, even in beautiful British Columbia. The evidence is everywhere, and we have written on it extensively. (Read our five-part series) Rising ocean levels and temperatures, frequent and more intense storms, droughts, forest fires, retreating glaciers, calving ice sheets, mudslides, newly active volcanoes, melting permafrost in the Arctic leaving bubbling cauldrons of methane – a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Plus the negative effects of the natural gas industry that continue to be seen in the form of methane escapes into the water and atmosphere, benzene poisoning among the people of northeastern BC who live near fracking wells, polluted lakes, more CO2 and other toxins that are emitted permanently into the atmosphere when natural gas is burnt to produce energy.
In 2017, global economic losses from natural disasters and man-made catastrophes were the highest ever amounting to US$337 billion.
This article will take a closer look at those costs, and poses the question: How are we going to address climate change by encouraging the development of a fossil-fuel driven LNG industry in British Columbia?
Forest fires and climate change
It doesn’t take a scientist to notice that forest fires and droughts (the two being inter-related) have been getting worse over the years. BC entered its third consecutive year of serious wildfires. This summer was the worst fire season on record and anecdotally, there was a lot more smoke than in 2017. So much that there was a run on HEPA air filters in the Lower Mainland, usually immune from the smoke “up north” or “in the Interior”. People were checking daily air quality warnings like we were living in China. In fact Kelowna hit a record one day as having worse air quality than Beijing.
Close to 13,000 square kilometers were burnt, breaking the previous record set in 2017; that year, the government spent $568 million on fire suppression. This year is estimated to come in at over $300 million.
While the forest fire season is over in Canada, state-side they continue to rage. In California this week, over 100 people, many of them seniors, are missing as firefighters battle the Camp Fire, the largest in the state’s history. Fifty people have perished in two major fires burning in California. According to CNN the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire – one in northern and the other in southern California – have so far destroyed 8,083 homes or structures and scorched 232,620 acres.
So what to make of these fires? Are they caused by climate change? That seems to be the narrative in the press, although the problem is more complicated than that. Prescribed burns, as forest companies used to do, are no longer government policy in the United States or Canada, leaving hundreds of hectares/acres of dangerously dry tinder, easily ignited by a match or a lightning strike. Prescribed burns are bad for tourism. Residents don’t care much for them either.
But warming temperatures and an extended drought in the western United States are certainly major factors. The Guardian reports that of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history, 15 of them have been since 2000, during which time forests have become warmer and drier. Since 1970 the temperature increase in the west is about double the global average.
“Given strong relationships between climate and fire, even when modified by land use and management such as fuel treatments, projected climate changes suggest that western forests in the United States will be increasingly affected by large and intense fires that occur more frequently,” a government report states.
The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that higher temperatures in the summer and spring are causing soils to be drier for longer, increasing the likelihood of droughts and a longer wildfire season. In the US southwest, it’s predicted that the fire season will soon be all year long rather than just seven months. A NASA study states that droughts caused by climate change are getting worse and could become more frequent in the western US.
See below for a current drought map. Almost everything west of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico now ranges from abnormally dry to exceptional drought.
In the summer over half of the United States fit this description.
In BC, similar conditions prevailed this year. Two weeks of hot weather in July drove up the fire danger rating, followed by widespread lightning in early August.
Not only do wildfires chew through forests/ agricultural land, drive people from their homes, destroy property and sometimes kill people, they also cause flash floods, in areas where all the vegetation has been burnt, leaving nowhere for water to be absorbed; and drive a climate change feedback loop.
The loop happens when forest fires burn the carbon stored in trees, emitting a toxic brew of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, causing further warming, drier forests, and more fires.
An independent report released by the BC government states that in 2017, wildfires emitted 190 million tonnes of carbon into the environment – six times the total from other sources and almost triple BC’s annual carbon footprint.
Another effect of global warming is the increasing intensity of forest fires. This past summer some fires in BC were so hot, they couldn’t be put out with water alone. CBC quotes Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, saying that many large fires are spreading in BC, year after year, due to a ridge of high pressure that is stuck over the province for much of the summer. The ridge forms along the West Coast due to melting Arctic sea ice, and the air beneath it is warm and dry, creating the perfect conditions for a “raging inferno” according to Flannigan.
Governments backing LNG
Apparently though, Premier Horgan didn’t make the connection between the fires, and the onslaught of greenhouse gases that LNG is set to unleash on British Columbians in coming years, as he sat grinning in a room with Trudeau in October.
Why is LNG Canada going ahead while the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is tied up in more consultation? An Alberta Cabinet minister says the LNG project will have a greater environmental impact than TMX. We agree.
“It’s going to result in about 177-per-cent increase in tanker traffic compared to TMX which will result in a 14 per cent increase,” Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous told reporters at the Alberta legislature, via CBC.
A Globe and Mail article put the two projects side by side to examine the impacts – both economic and environmental. In terms of CO2 emissions, the Globe analysis assigns a much heavier footprint to LNG Canada – 3.45 million tonnes annually – versus just 0.4 million tonnes from TMX.
Maybe the politicians don’t realize it, but developing an LNG industry in BC requires widespread fracking. Of all the natural gas reserves left in BC, only 22% are conventional, with the rest found in unconventional formations, known as “tight gas”.
At Ahead of the Herd we have done extensive research into fracking, and recently reviewed the history of the practice in BC. We revealed a number of disturbing occurrences. Among them: earthquakes; rules to protect caribou were broken and unenforced by the Oil and Gas Commission; unsustainable (and possibly illegal) draw-downs of water; and the most disturbing of all, heightened levels of benzene, a dangerous carcinogen, found in pregnant native women.
For more read our LNG: Another environmental disaster coming to BC
We also found evidence of a BC Liberal government cover-up of the risk fracking presents to dam safety:
“Senior BC Hydro officials have quietly feared for years that earthquakes triggered by natural gas industry fracking operations could damage its Peace River dams, putting hundreds if not thousands of people at risk should the dams fail. Yet the Crown corporation has said nothing publicly about its concerns, opting instead to negotiate behind the scenes with the provincial energy industry regulator, the BC Oil and Gas Commission.”
In spite of all this, Premier Horgan says he’s okay with fracking.
“We’ve been fracking in B.C. for decades and we do it fairly well. I’ve been to a number of frack sites, and I’m comfortable with the technology,” Horgan said in 2012, when asked whether the NDP supports fracking.
Although the current BC government denies it, it seems pretty clear that Horgan’s NDP was thinking of LNG when it agreed to let the controversial Site C dam project go ahead last year – despite railing against it in Opposition.
That’s because Site C will be needed to power LNG Canada and future LNG plants that are in the works. Add in the cancellation of Kinder Morgan, the fact there are only so many pipeline routes through mountainous BC, and a $5.3 billion tax break given to LNG Canada, and the evidence only points in one direction: the BC NDP.
The proof? A year ago it was reported that BC Hydro expects at least three LNG projects will need power from Site C.
It’s also interesting to note that the nascent LNG industry in BC is being encouraged by the federal Liberals. In 2017 Trudeau’s Liberals passed Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, which stops crude oil tanker traffic on the northern coast of BC – thus formalizing a “voluntary” Tanker Exclusion Zone that’s existed since 2015.
Excluded from the bill, though, are gasoline, naphtha, jet fuel, propane and liquefied natural gas (LNG) – allowing the unfettered expansion of a new LNG industry in BC.
Recall back in 2016, the federal government made a questionable bargain with the oil industry and Canadians – approving the $36 billion Pacific NorthWest LNG project near Prince Rupert, while at the same time assuring Canadians that the massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the project (later cancelled by Petronas), would be part of a national climate plan. As we now know, that plan includes a carbon tax that all provinces must buy into.
So it seems that the feds have been on board with LNG since 2016, or perhaps earlier, obviously without much knowledge of the science – or maybe our Provincial and Federal politicians just don’t care?
Once the gas is fracked and put in a pipeline, it arrives at the terminal – however in a form unsuitable for tanker transport. To turn it into a liquid, it must be cooled to 163 degrees below zero. To do that requires a great deal of power, with massive compression units running 24/7.
It’s estimated that if LNG Canada were to use only hydro-electric power to convert NG to LNG, would require 40% of the capacity of the Site C dam currently being built. The more likely scenario is that LNG Canada will use a combination of hydro electricity and natural gas to power the plant – the same fracked gas that came via pipeline to the terminal. And it makes sense to do that, since NG is a lot cheaper than hydro.
The bottom line? LNG is not clean energy, it’s dirty energy – pumped up from the ground with the help of chemicals that leach into the water supply. When burned for electricity, natural gas gives off emissions that are in the atmosphere forever, contributing to the greenhouse effect of global warming.
“Today’s announcement is a new form of climate denial: The idea that we can build new fossil fuel projects that will cause millions of tonnes of additional emissions while reducing our emissions at the same time,” said Sierra Club B.C.’s climate campaigner, Jens Wieting, the day of the LNG Canada announcement. “By sweetening the pot for fracked gas export, the government is laying out a red carpet for investors to help destroy our climate.”
The real costs of LNG
$22 billion seems like a lot of revenue to glean from one LNG project. Imagine if two more projects of similar size could be built. That would wipe out BC’s current debt of around $67 billion.
But this is just the “gross revenue”. To find the net, we have to calculate the costs of LNG, to our health, our environment, and natural disasters that could easily occur as a result of an industry that is really a ticking time bomb. Then subtract them from the gross. Let’s give it a try.
The best way to measure the health effects of LNG is to look at the natural gas industry in the United States, where fracking has been done with gusto for nearly a decade – using the same techniques that will be done in BC.
It’s been found that people who live near areas where hydraulic fracturing is taking place, are more likely to be hospitalized for heart conditions, neurological illness and cancer. That’s according to a study done in 2015 by the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, where researchers looked at hospitalization rates in Pennsylvania in areas with fracking versus those without.
“The technology to recover natural gas depends on undisclosed types and amounts of toxic chemicals. A list of 944 products containing 632 chemicals used during natural gas operations was compiled. Literature searches were conducted to determine potential health effects of the 353 chemicals identified by Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) numbers. More than 75% of the chemicals could affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.
Approximately 40-50% could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and mutations.
These results indicate that many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed. In addition, an example was provided of waste evaporation pit residuals that contained numerous chemicals on the CERCLA and EPCRA lists of hazardous substances.” Natural Gas Operations From A Public Health Perspective, wv4mom.org
The researchers tested urine samples of 29 pregnant women in Chetwynd and Dawson Creek, two small communities near heavily-fracked shale gas fields in BC’s Peace River Valley. They measured two “biomarkers” that our bodies produce when we’re exposed to benzene, a carcinogen that’s been linked to low birth weights and some defects.
Fracking defenders say the process is perfectly safe and contained. The reality is that pollutants are released throughout the process – into the air and water.
Tens of thousands of wells will be drilled, then a concoction of chemicals, water and frac sand will be pumped in at high pressure to break apart the shale rock in order to create fissures that release the natural gas. The fracking fluid and natural gas will then be pumped back up and “burped” for several weeks, while the gas is separated from the fluids. Sour gas is burned, releasing carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the environment. Thirty to 40% of the fracking fluid is left in the well. The “flowback liquid” that is left after the gas is extracted contains water and a number of contaminants, including radioactive material (like radium, which can cause leukemia), heavy metals, hydrocarbons, bromide and other toxins.
This wastewater is then stored in pits, injected deep underground, or treated off-site.
The wastewater pumped underground goes into oil and gas waste wells or saline aquifers. There are serious concerns about the ability of these caverns and aquifers to handle the increased pressure and the evidence is showing that deep-well injecting is linked to the occurrence of earthquakes.
Benzene, a cancer-causing carcinogen mentioned above in the study on pregnant women, can seep into the groundwater, helped along by further cracks in the Earth if the procedure results in tremors.
Wastewater stored on surface is no better. The toxic ponds continue to off-gas for years and poisons may leach into the water supply. In the Netherlands, methane was found in the drinking water supply of the nearby aquifer, 50 years after a blow-out occurred in an underground natural gas reservoir.
Methane in water is explosive and can cause asphyxiate people if it’s not detected. Methane concentrations are 17 times higher in drinking-water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells.
Then there’s the extreme water use.
Each well uses between 1.5 million and 15 million gallons (American Geosciences Institute) of locally-sourced fresh water (an estimated 28,000 wells have been drilled so far in Northeastern BC, that number could easily double), which will be permanently contaminated by toxic chemicals contained in the fracking fluid, in ground contaminants and the mixing of the two to create new toxic substances. This is water that could be used for drinking, by animals or humans, or for irrigating crops and pastures. Billions of gallons of fresh water will be destroyed.
A recent study from Duke University found a huge increase in water use for fracking operations over the past five years. The paper published in Science Advances revealed that water use per well increased by up to 770% between 2011 and 2016. Wastewater volumes rose by 1,440% in two Texas shale formations.
Keep in mind, this water is being taken by oil and gas companies for free. Pretty galling considering most of us have to pay for our water. Imagine how much it would cost if they had to pay for it? Billions. In BC we pay an average $37.50 a month for water. In drought-stricken areas, it’s a lot higher. Water rates in California have been going up. Multiply $37.50/mo times 2.4 million (the 4.8 million population of British Columbia conservatively divided by two to account for multiple-person households) and you get $2.167 billion a year.
When it comes to air pollution, natural gas is, prima facie, better for the environment than coal. NG plants emit about half of the carbon dioxide compared to coal-fired plants, and a natural gas-powered vehicle will release 15 to 20% less pollutants than one powered by gasoline.
But there will still be emissions, lots of them, plus, the really negative effects of natural gas occur at the drilling, extraction and transportation phases. This is because the industry can’t stop the escape of methane, the main component of natural gas. Methane is terrible for the atmosphere, and a large contributor to global warming, because it is much more efficient than CO2 at trapping heat. Scientists estimate methane contributes about 25% to global warming.
Fugitive methane emissions run from 1% to 9% of total natural gas life cycle emissions. In order for natural gas power plants to be cleaner than coal, methane emissions over the plant’s life cycle must be kept below 3.2%, according to one study.
Most methane leaks come from flaring excess NG instead of putting it into a pipeline. Think methane emissions are no big deal, just a cost of doing business? The journal Nature earlier this year published a study saying that the US oil and gas industry emits 13 million tonnes of methane a year, which is 60% higher than the EPA’s estimate.
The biggest methane leak in US history occurred in California in 2015. It took SoCal Gas nearly four months to plug the leak at the Alison Canyon gas field – during which an estimated 109,000 tonnes of methane was released into the atmosphere. While that sounds bad, the methane emissions from one natural gas field – the sprawling San Juan Basin in the US southwest – emitted 291,162 tonnes of methane in 2014, according to the EPA. The Front Range tight gas formation in Colorado reportedly leaks 19.3 tons of methane an hour.
In some areas where fracking occurs, there have been increases in other hazardous pollutants besides methane – namely particulate matter and ozone. Living under half a mile from an unconventional gas well puts you at greater risk of respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to one study quoted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
On top of the methane gas escapes and other toxic emissions, methane in the water, ruined fresh water that could be put to productive and healthy uses, dangerous health risks including benzene poisoning leading to cancer and birth defects, earthquakes, the risk to dams and other large structures, we added two more detrimental effects of fracking in a recent article: danger to killer whales from much higher LNG tanker traffic, and the exacerbation of global warming witnessed by retreating glaciers and a newly active volcano right here in BC.
Mount Meager just north of Vancouver is a ticking time bomb, with glacial retreat exposing “fumaroles” or vents spewing hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and steam.
Of course we can’t attribute fracking to venting and retreating glaciers on Mount Meager, the site of a massive mudslide in 2010 – the second largest in Canadian history. But if fracking goes ahead in northeastern BC, as it undoubtedly will with two LNG projects on the runway and 12 more proposed according to Natural Resources Canada, there will be more carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases released, increasing the likelihood of another disaster at Mount Meager, and other BC volcanoes coming to life.
Climate change is real. We don’t know whether it’s human-caused or a function of natural cycles, or maybe a combination of both. Actually we don’t care. We only know that it’s here, and we need to plan for it. Most of the population is happy to go on with their lives, knowing that the Earth is warming, but without much concern it will affect them. This includes politicians who are the gate-keepers of our natural resources, our air and our water.
With the acceleration of an LNG industry in BC, these gate-keepers have given the keys to large, foreign multi-nationals who don’t care about BC. They only want to buy our gas and ship it overseas, supposedly to get Asia off of coal and onto cleaner natural gas. But as we have shown, NG is anything but clean. When burned, it emits noxious pollutants. These emissions are part of the problem of climate change, not the solution. Methane release makes the problem many times worse. The more methane in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet will get. It’s just science.
The only way to get the liquid natural gas is to frack it, which comes with a whole host of problems, presenting huge risks to human and animal health, and the environment. Is it worth it? Is 20 billion dollars over the 40-year life of one project worth the risk of what we’re going to do to northeastern BC?
Not from the economic side…The financial cost to us BC residents is massively lopsided. BC politicians are giving them, the LNG multinationals, none of which are Canadian Companies, a $5.3 billion tax break and $86.68 billion in free water over the 40 period they supposedly give us $20 billion. The Feds are giving them another $250m. Hmmmmm.
And what price will BC residents pay for failing to reach our stated carbon footprint reduction goals? We at Ahead of the Herd believe that the costs to human health of fracking natural gas, pipelining and burning it to get LNG, in terms of increased hospitalizations, and drains on the Medical Services Plan, plus the many negative effects on the environment – contributing to global warming causing earthquakes, landslides, volcanoes erupting, the extinction of BC’s Killer Whales etc – to name a few will cost a great deal more than $20 billion, over the next 40 years.
What is the net benefit to BC of just one LNG project, let alone two or three more and a massive pipeline system that would have to be built to move all that gas around? I strongly suggest there is none.
Richard (Rick) Mills
Ahead of the Herd is on Twitter
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