By electing a party whose principal economic platform is the development of British Columbia’s natural gas resources, BC voters have decided to tempt disaster. The province’s premier, apparently oblivious to the portentous warnings of climate science, has created a new ministry specifically tasked with the responsibility of developing at least three Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plants by 2020 — the industry envisions an eventual total of six — with the objective of shipping massive quantities of this product to an apparently energy-hungry Asian market.
The strategy is couched in exuberant promise. Billions of dollars in royalties are expected to quickly erase BC’s debt, provide employment for thousands, end homelessness, fund education, solve healthcare problems and create a huge legacy fund. An estimated trillion dollars in additional economic activity over 30 years is supposed to bring unparalleled wealth to the province. In response to environmental concerns, LNG is being pitched as a “climate solution” because burning natural gas is advertised as producing only about half the carbon dioxide of oil. Everyone is supposed to relax, trust that the future will be secure under the guidance of political expedience, and disregard the frenzy of drilling, fracking and pumping.
However, such promise comes with concerns. Global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rocket upward, with no reductions in sight. World consumption of coal is soaring, increasing in almost every country but the United States. Japan, stung by the trauma of the meltdown of its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, is shifting its energy toward coal and gas — its carbon dioxide emissions are up 30 percent. Even Germany, with its idealistic pragmatism on carbon emissions, is building more coal-fired electrical generation stations as it, too, cuts back on nuclear power. Meanwhile, the promise of making coal clean with carbon capture and storage has been mostly ineffectual, both economically and practically. To complete the scenario, huge new supplies of oil are now rushing to market from the innovation of horizontal drilling in shale deposits. The International Energy Agency has measured the daily global consumption of oil at 89.8 million barrels per day for 2012, and expects a rise to 90.6 mbd for 2013. So LNG will be added to the climate-changing effects of unrestrained oil and coal consumption.
With no foreseeable shortages of fossil fuels for decades, and with the prospect of nearly limitless quantities of natural gas inundating the market by pipeline and LNG tankers, economists are predicting a decrease in the dollar value of oil and coal. This will encourage their use, reduce the pressure for efficiency, and undermine the renewable energy option from such sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and tidal — precisely what the global climate crisis does not need.
Assuming that the foundational principles of climate science are correct — as they almost certainly are — then the development of natural gas and LNG in BC is a regressive strategy, a shortsighted and reckless venture in the direction of catastrophe. When burning 1 kg of natural gas produces 2.75 kg of carbon dioxide, advertising LNG as “green” is a political strategy, not an environmental one.
Considerable evidence argues against the environmental benefits of LNG — cleaner than oil and coal is hardly a sterling recommendation for burning another fossil fuel. Extracting reliable quantities of natural gas from sparse concentrations in shale requires nearly constant drilling. Fracking necessitates the injection of toxic chemicals and inordinate amounts of valuable water into sometimes unpredictable strata. Leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, commonly occurs in the process. Pumping adds to emissions. The cooling and compressing to convert natural gas to LNG is extremely energy intensive. Then ocean-going shipping contributes to the inefficiency. By totalling all these expenditures of energy, some critics calculate that LNG is almost as carbon intensive as coal.
Furthermore, the economic benefits for BC are likely overly optimistic. Many countries are presently planning or building LNG plants for export purposes — a dozen in the US and several in Australia. And Russia, with natural gas resources that dwarf the ones in this province, will be piping supplies directly to China. Meanwhile, Asian countries are being careful to diversify their LNG sources, a strategy designed to keep the energy market competitive and prices down.
But the sociological argument against LNG is, perhaps, the most damning and compelling. Societies that come to rely heavily on the export of raw resources invariably stultify their human potential and handicap their future prospects. Their economies become narrow, brittle and unstable, subject to the vagaries of boom-and-bust cycles. Skewed in favour of fast and easy money rather than solid and sustainable enterprise, they relinquish their economic control to the decisions of others. When the source of their wealth is fragile and uncertain, their aspirations invariably overreach their ability to pay and their collective psychology begins to exhibit the personality characteristics of the addict.
Such resource-based societies lose resilience, independence and confidence. So they are inclined to perceive themselves as vulnerable victims rather than confident initiators. As their collective psyche suffers an erosion of power, sophistication, pride and morale, they become cynical, an unhealthy psychology that combines with a frayed social fabric to make their problems progressively more difficult to solve. A sense of defeat and powerlessness even manifests as a declining involvement in participatory democracy.
British Columbians will pay a high price for LNG. But the cost to the global environment will be immeasurably higher. BC owes itself and the world much more than this.