BC’S Natural Gas Strategy: Bad for the climate, weak on jobs

2 Dec

From the BC Sustainable Energy Association

By Guy Dauncey on February 6, 2012

New gas strategy will increase emissions, not reduce them

The BC government’s newly released natural gas strategy will increase greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, not reduce them, as claimed in British Columbia’s Natural Gas Strategy, released on Friday February 3rd 2012.

“Methane leaks from the extraction of natural gas are a huge driver of climate change,” said Guy Dauncey, Executive Director of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, “and the evidence appears to show that the extraction of shale gas produces up to twice as many fugitive methane emissions as conventional gas. It is essential that ways be found to control and capture these emissions.”

When the impact of the fugitive emissions is measured over 100 years, by 2020 they will be adding 54 to 110 MT of CO2e a year to BC’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. When measured over twenty years, to reflect the actual impact of methane’s heat-trapping impact in the atmosphere, they will add 177 – 360 MT of CO2e a year. BC’s emissions in 2009 were 66.9 MT, so measured over 20 years, unless captured, they will cause a 260% to 538% increase in BC’s emissions.

As a result of the high levels of fugitive methane emissions associated with natural gas, and especially with the fracking and extraction of shale gas, the planned extraction of natural gas will cause a 62% to 128% increase in BC’s annual GHGs by 2020, when the emissions are measured over 100 years. Unless there is a clear plan to capture and neutralize the methane, the proposed strategy will make it completely impossible to achieve the province’s legislated goal of a 33% reduction in emissions by 2020. The gas that is exported to Asia will carry this extremely high climate impact footprint due to the high associated methane emissions, and will increase global GHG emissions, not reduce them as the government’s news release claims.

“British Columbia has shown great climate action leadership with its carbon tax and its Climate Action Plan,” said Dauncey. “It would be a shame if this new policy direction were to undermine the progress that BC is making.” He added, “the uncertainty in the data around BC’s shale gas fugitive emissions is something that the government’s Natural Gas Climate Action Working Group should investigate.”

The province’s new strategy calls for the development of three new facilities to export the province’s natural gas to Asia in a liquefied form. BC currently produces 1.1 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas a year, 50% of which comes from the fracking of shale gas. By 2020, this is expected to grow to 3 Tcf, of which 83% will come from shale gas.

“BC should be building a green economy, not maximizing the extraction of fossil fuels,” said Tom Hackney, Director of Policy for the BC Sustainable Energy Association. “Many more jobs would be created by investing in efficiency retrofits for buildings than by increasing natural gas production and fossil fuel exports.”

The BCSEA is a not-for-profit association that seeks a future in which 100% of British Columbia’s energy comes from clean, renewable resources, combined with far greater energy efficiency.

BCSEA Backgrounder: BC’s Shale Gas

One of the problems with natural gas is the fugitive methane emissions that escape during extraction and distribution. When gas is burnt, it produces 42% less CO2 than coal and 26% less than oil[1], which is why the province’s new strategy calls it “the world’s cleanest burning fossil fuel.”

This is not the whole story, however, since the industry has found it impossible to extract and distribute natural gas without also releasing methane, sometimes mixed with CO2.

The climate impact of methane is measured by comparing it to CO2, which is assigned a global warming potential (GWP) of 1, measured over 100 years. In 1996, methane was assigned a GWP of 21. This was subsequently increased in 23 and then to 25, as more was learned about how methane behaves in the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected to further increase methane’s GWP to 32 over 100 years in its forthcoming report. This means that over 100 years, methane traps 32 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

The 100-year measurement does not give a true picture of methane’s real climate impact, however, since methane’s actual life in the atmosphere is less than ten years, after which it is oxidized into CO2 and water vapour.[2] By using the 100-year measurement, methane’s warming impact is averaged out over 100 years and its real short-term impact is hidden.

This might not matter if global warming was a slow, long-term concern, but most climate scientists say otherwise, pointing to the danger of critical tipping points beyond which the warming may be impossible to control. These include the melting of the northern Canadian and Siberian permafrost, the Arctic sea-ice and the Greenland glaciers. For each of these dangers, the shorter time frame is what matters, not the longer hundred-year time frame.

The IPCC does not offer any numbers for ten years, but when methane’s global warming potential is calculated over a 20-year time-frame using the current IPCC GWPs, it traps 72 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Methane’s 20-year GWP is expected to be upgraded to 105 in the next IPCC report, due in 2013/2014, following research findings by Dr. Drew Shindell, senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Coordinating Lead Author of the forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, and co-leader of the chapter on  Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing.

The conventional natural gas industry has a methane leakage rate of between 1.7% and 6% (average 3%), as the gas escapes through valves, pipes and compression stations, and by deliberate venting to blow and purge the system.[3] Whenever a backhoe operator breaks into a gas line the gas escapes as raw methane, unless it blows up and is converted to CO2. These fugitive emissions are not always calculated with accuracy when the carbon footprint of natural gas is being calculated, and are not currently subject to BC’s carbon tax.

The limited evidence so far appears to indicate that the fracking of natural gas may releases twice as much fugitive methane as the conventional extraction of gas. The most recent research by Professor Robert Howarth, Renee Santorum and Professor Anthony Ingraffea from the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University found that between 3.6 and 7.9% of shale gas escapes as fugitive methane emissions. [4]They also found that their methane emissions analysis compared well with the EPA’s.

BC’s Horn River and Monteney shale gas fields are estimated to contain between 116 and 240 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. BC’s current natural gas production rate is 1.1 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) a year, rising to 3 Tcf a year by 2020, 83% of which will be from shale gas.

If we take the Howarth finding that 3.6 to 7.9% of the shale gas escapes as fugitive methane emissions, and apply the EPA’s conversion formula[5] to today’s production of 1 trillion Tcf a year, of which 50% is conventional and 50% shale gas, and use the EPA’s average 3% leakage rate for conventional gas[6], we find that natural gas production is contributing 13-22 MT of CO2e a year to BC’s GHGs. (See below).

By 2020, when production is planned to be 3 Tcf a year, of which 83% will be shale gas, it will add 42-86 MT of CO2e a year, representing a 62% to 128% increase in BC’s 2009 GHG emissions.

The EPA’s conversion formula assumes a GWP over 100 years of 25 for methane. When methane’s new 100 year GWP of 32 is confirmed in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, it will indicate that over 100 years the radiative forcing of methane is 28% higher than previously thought. When this is added to the 42-86 MT of CO2e, the resulting tonnage for 2020 rises to 54 – 110 MT of CO2e.

These numbers also calculate the impact of methane over 100 years. Over 20 years, using Dr. Drew Shindell’s upgraded numbers, methane traps 105 times more heat than CO2. When the numbers are adjusted (multiplied by 3.28) to take this into account, the tonnage of CO2e attributable to fugitive emissions from BC’s natural gas industry over twenty years rises by 2020 to 177 – 360 MT, which will be 2.6 to 5.4 times greater than BC’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 of 66.9 MT.




Shale gas

% Conventional gas Shale gas methane

@ 3.6% leakage

Shale gas methane

@ 7.9% leakage

Conventional gas methane @ 3%




E + F


+ 28% GWP 32

not 25

GWP 20 years,

not 100

x 3.28

2011 1 Tcf 50%

= 500 Bcf


= 500 Bcf

500 x 3.6%

= 18 x 0.4045 = 7.28 MT

500 x 7.9%

=39.5 x 0.4045

= 16 MT

500 x 3%

= 15 x 0.4045

= 6 MT

13 MT 22 MT 16-28




2020 3 Tcf 83%

= 2500 Bcf


= 510 Bcf

2500 x 3.6%

= 90 x 0.4045

= 36 MT

2500 x 7.9%

= 197.5 x 0.4045

=80 MT

500 x 3%

= 15 x 0.4045

= 6 MT

42 MT 86 MT 54-110





Note:  This table ignores the fact that 12% of the Horn River fugitive emissions are CO2, not methane. It also simplifies the 2011 production level from 1.1 to 1 Tcf, which partly compensates for the 2011 COomission.


[5] The conversion figure on page 41 of US GAO-11-34 published in 2010 is 0.4045 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per billion cubic feet of vented natural gas, and 0.06 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per billion cubic feet of flared natural gas.

[6] EPA (2010) Greenhouse gas emissions reporting from the petroleum and natural gas industry. Background Technical Support Documenthttp://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/downloads10/Subpart-W_TSD.pdf



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