Part II – Is liquefied natural gas really a ‘green’ option for Revelstoke?

This three-part series explores the benefits and the costs of bringing LNG to Revelstoke. Part I looked at FortisBC’s plan to bring LNG to Revelstoke. Part II looks at environmental concerns.
By Laura Stovel
Most climate experts agree that the key to curbing climate change is to greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that emit CO2, the main greenhouse gas. If significant global warming is to be avoided energy intake will need to be reduced and renewable forms of energy will have to form a much bigger part of the global energy picture.
In June of this year, FortisBC will apply to the BC Utilities Commission for permission to bring liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Revelstoke to replace the existing propane. Most people in Revelstoke will greet this as a good thing. Natural gas prices are considerably cheaper than propane and burns 15-17% cleaner. This may seem like a win-win solution but some observers caution that cheaper prices may lead to increased energy use and make investments in renewable energy uncompetitive.

Geoff Battersby
Geoff Battersby

Former mayor Geoff Battersby understands the appeal of bringing natural gas to Revelstoke “because of the cost savings,” but he raises three important points in terms of the environmental impact of cheaper fuel prices.
First, cheaper prices for fossil fuels will not encourage people to reduce their energy intake or seek out alternatives. Preventing serious climate change (defined in a David Suzuki Foundation and Pembina Institute report as a rise above 2° C) requires a drastic reduction in the global use of fossil fuels. Natural gas may be a cleaner-burning fuel at the consumption end, he said, but it’s “still a fossil fuel so it’s still spewing out greenhouse gases. It’s not a long-term solution to the whole issue of climate change.”
Lower prices for fossil fuels, whether for oil or natural gas, “is counterproductive to dealing with climate change” as consumers have less incentive to conserve energy. “When it comes right down to it, the only way to change the way people behave is to impact their pocket books. That’s why a carbon tax is the answer to reducing the use of fossil fuels,” he said.
Second, cheap fossil fuel prices make greener alternatives less competitive. Fossil fuel industries in Canada are highly promoted by provincial and federal governments without a full accounting of their environmental and social costs – an effective subsidy. Just this week the federal government announced further tax breaks for the BC LNG industry.
Alternative energy initiatives don’t enjoy the same level of support, Battersby said. This is in contrast to Europe where high taxes on gasoline, as early as the 1970s, “were being used to fund alternative energy sources. All the European countries have great examples of what they’ve done through subsidized alternative energy sources with high taxation of fossil fuels and electricity.”
Lower prices for fuel affect the ability of local alternative energy systems – like the Revelstoke District Energy system – to compete. The district energy plant, located on the Downie sawmill site, uses wood waste from the mill to generate steam for the dry kilns at Downie and hot water which is piped to large buildings in the area for heat. (Battersby is chair of the Revelstoke District Energy Corporation but he stressed that his observations were made as a private citizen, not in an official capacity).
While Battersby acknowledged that the District Energy system will benefit in the short term from cheaper energy costs because 15-20% of the plant’s costs are related to the cost of propane, in the long run the shift will affect RCEC’s competitiveness.
RCEC is not the only local alternative energy effort that will suffer from introducing cheaper fossil fuels. The North Columbia Environmental Society’s Sustainable Living Committee runs regular workshops to educate the public about energy alternatives and energy conservation efforts and to promote thinking about a ‘100-mile energy diet.’ Cheaper natural gas may make local energy innovations and conservation efforts less interesting to the public.
The committee recently ran a workshop on the benefits and pitfalls of bringing natural gas to Revelstoke and is considering running it again. The goal of the workshop is to educate the public and generate much-needed public discussion on the proposed transition to natural gas.
Battersby’s third concern is that “there are a lot of impacts from both electricity generation and fossil fuel extraction and distribution that are not recognized in their tariffs at the end of the line.”
The view that the full environmental cost of natural gas is not being calculated when it is being touted as a ‘greener’ fuel, is shared by local energy expert Cornelius Suchy. Suchy argues that bringing natural gas to Revelstoke would, in fact, be more damaging to the environment than using propane – even ignoring the environmental impact of fracking.
“If you compare the emissions from a propane-fired furnace with that from the same gas-fired furnace, once it has been converted, you’re going to see about 15% lower emissions but these are only the emissions when combusting,” Suchy said. “It doesn’t take into account the whole life-cycle of natural gas and propane, how much energy is used and how much C02 or greenhouse gas is emitted in the production, transport and storage of these two fuels.”
Natural gas needs to be cooled down to 160 or 170°C at the front end to be transported in liquid form and that requires “massive amounts of energy,” Suchy said. “You’re basically having compressors the size of houses to compress the gas to cool it down to that temperature. How are we going to fuel these compressors?” Whether the compressors are fuelled by hydroelectricity or natural gas, that would bring the carbon footprint of natural gas higher than propane, he said.
Even if the LNG facilities use the best environmental standards, consistent with the BC government’s claim that they will be “the cleanest in the world,” a February 2014 draft report by Globe Advisors, prepared for the BC Ministry of Environment, Climate Action Secretariat shows that more than half of the CO2 emissions before distribution to customers occur between the wellhead and the LNG facility. These emissions are not counted in the claim that natural gas is cleaner burning than propane.
Of course propane has its own environmental footprint as it is a by-product of the oil and gas industries. Suchy argues that, as a by-product, it is piggybacking on existing oil and gas efforts and not leading to new extraction. FortisBC managers Blair Weston and Joe English counter that, even as a by-product, the propane market is part of the pricing equation for the oil and gas industries.
Finally, costs to consumers don’t take in the environmental costs of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a process that is increasingly being used in the oil and natural gas industries to access harder-to-reach oil and gas in areas with shale. The practice, which involves shooting large volumes of water, sand and chemicals down wells to release gas, has been criticised for polluting ground water and is banned in several European countries and American cities as well as Quebec.
FortisBC managers Weston and English say that the push to bring LNG to Revelstoke should not be mixed up with the provincial government’s push to extract and export LNG on a large scale, as reported in the first article in this series. Even if the two were not connected, concerns about increased use due to lower prices, an uncompetitive environment for alternative energies, and uncounted costs upstream remain.
The City of Revelstoke signed the BC Climate Action Charter in 2008 and developed the Community Energy and Emissions Plan which came out in 2011. The plan recommended greenhouse gas emission reductions from a 2007 baseline of 8% by 2020 and 15% by 2030. The City adopted these recommendations in an update to its Official Community Plan in 2011.
The City will be requesting input for a new Official Community Plan beginning this fall. The consultation over the year that follows is an opportunity for Revelstoke residents to show that climate action at the local level is important to them.
If Revelstoke is to be part of the solution to tackle climate change we need a vision for the future that leads us to dramatically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The next article in the series will explore that vision in light of the City’s and community’s emissions targets and commitments.