As the world grapples with accelerated climate change, consumer expectations have quickly shifted towards embracing sustainability, causing major market disruptions for nearly every industry. This is encouraging, as it shows that sustainability has finally entered mainstream discourse. The growing consumer emphasis on environmental preservation has catalyzed numerous positive changes, but it has also provided opportunities for governments and corporations to greenwash, which is the act of deceptively branding oneself as ‘eco-friendly.’ British Columbia’s natural gas sector, aided by the province’s government, has attempted in recent years to brand gas energy as a solution to climate change. This paper explores their claim, analyzing the impacts of natural gas development on British Columbia’s biodiversity and ambient air and water quality. In doing so, it becomes evident that the environmental impact of British Columbia’s natural gas industry is deceptive, representing a much greater threat to the health of the province’s people and natural ecosystems than the industry leads on.
British Columbia’s natural gas was first discovered by a rail company in Haney more than 100 years ago (The facts about where B.Cs energy comes from, 2014). Large-scale gas production has occurred since the 1950s when the province began expanding its pipeline infrastructure and building gas wells (The facts about where B.Cs energy comes from, 2014). Recent changes in technology and consumer preferences have decreased the demand for coal and diesel energy while having the opposite effect on renewable and gas energy. The primary beneficiary of this market change has been natural gas, which now represents 30% of British Columbia’s electricity mix (Natural Gas Facts, 2020). Canada is the 4th largest global producer of natural gas and the 6th largest exporter, with revenue totaling 4.9 billion in 2019 (Natural Gas Facts, 2020).
Natural gas primarily consists of methane, formed from organic matter over millions of years. There are two general classifications of gas, differentiated by the equipment needed for extraction. Conventional gas, trapped in porous rock, relies on ‘traditional’ drilling methods (Rivard, Lavoie, Lefebvre, Sejourne, Lamontagne, & Duchesne, 2014). Conversely, unconventional gas is less accessible, requiring more advanced processes (Rivard, et al., 2014), such as hydraulic fracturing. British Columbia’s natural gas is primarily found in sedimentary rock in the northeast of the province and requires enhanced extraction processes to access (Rivard, et al., 2014). Post-extraction, natural gas is refined and transported through pipelines. Alternatively, the gas can be cooled to reduce its volume, then shipped by boat or rail as liquified natural gas, or ‘LNG.’
The industry rationale behind touting natural gas as a solution to climate change is clear: It delays the inevitable phasing out of the energy source, protecting the gas industry’s profits. The public relations campaign to convince Canadians that gas is clean has been boosted by one key fact: Natural gas burns much cleaner than other fossil fuels. In an era of increased consumer eco-mindedness, this offers an excellent optical opportunity, one which the gas industry quickly took advantage of.
Burning unconventional gas may be relatively ‘clean’ when compared to fossil fuel alternatives; however, the extraction process, most commonly hydraulic fracturing (which British Columbia relies on), has devastating consequences for the climate. Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ refers to a process of injecting high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals into the earth to release natural gas. The vast majority of British Columbia’s natural gas is exported to the United States (Natural Gas Facts, 2020). Fracking represents the fastest growing gas extraction method, as many countries, including Canada, have largely depleted conventional gas deposits (Larkin, Gracie, Dusseault, & Krewski, 2018). The process of fracking leaks large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. This poses a significant health threat, as methane contributes to climate change and degrades ambient air quality (Environmental Defense Fund, n.d.). British Columbia’s natural gas production represents a global pollutant, meaning that both residents of the province and global citizens will incur the industry’s negative externalities. The potency of methane on the earth’s greenhouse effect is 84x that of carbon dioxide (Environmental Defense Fund, n.d.), which is why natural gas proponents tout the sources’ operational greenhouse gases instead of cumulative emissions. This is strategic, as solely analyzing downstream emissions fails to paint a complete picture of the energy source’s impacts.
When factoring in upstream and downstream emissions, including infrastructure development, extraction, distribution, and refining, fracked gas has a carbon footprint that rivals coal or diesel fuels (Wigley, 2011). Fracking produces far more methane leakage than traditional gas extraction techniques, counteracting the benefits of ‘burning cleanly’ (DeRochie, 2018). Unless methane leakage rates can be kept below 2% (the industry standard is nowhere near this today), fracked natural gas offers little in the way of solutions to climate change (DeRochie, 2018).
British Columbia’s fracking degrades surface and groundwater quality and negatively impacts its quantity of freshwater resources. Chemicals used in fracking injection fluid only represent 2% of total fluid volume; however, this amasses to over 40,000 liters of chemicals per fracking well (Benusic, 2014). This is a lethal concentration and helps provide perspective to the scale of the potential consequences from leakage. Unfortunately, leakage from gas wells in British Columbia is quite common, with one-fifth of all wells reporting at least one leakage instance (Wisen, Chesnaux, Wendling, Werring, Barbecot, & Baudron, 2019).
Investments from the province into a new LNG facility in Kitimat will guarantee industry growth, increasing the likelihood of cross-contamination in British Columbia’s water supply (Nikiforuk, 2019). The scope of the danger is relatively unknown, as little data is available on the impact of fracking on water, specifically in British Columbia. There are only seven groundwater observation wells throughout the entire province, responsible for monitoring the impacts of thousands of gas wells (Nikiforuk, 2019). There is not nearly enough oversight on British Columbia’s natural gas industry, which hampers scientific understanding of fracking’s long-term implications and makes it more difficult to detect when potential risks arise. An analysis of 353 different chemicals commonly used in fracking fluid found that three quarters could be linked to respiratory, gastrointestinal, dermatological, or ocular effects (Benusic, 2014). Additionally, one quarter were noted to be possible carcinogens (Benusic, 2014).
British Columbia’s natural gas industry lacks accountability for its impact on the provinces’ water quality and water quantity. Natural gas wells are not required to disclose industrial water usage in the province, despite it being well documented that fracking is highly water-intensive (Kuwayama, Olmstead, & Krupnick, 2015). Newer technology required to extract unconventional gas requires up to 28x the amount of water used 15 years ago (Magill, 2015); combined with the industry’s rapidly growing scale, this poses serious threats to the security of British Columbia’s water supply.
British Columbia is home to some of Canada’s greatest biodiversity pockets, which are inherently valuable as ecosystems and can assist human development (i.e., medicines). Natural gas is typically transported using pipelines, rail transit, or ocean tanker traffic, all of which face their own environmental and logistical challenges. British Columbia has around 40,000 kilometers worth of existing gas pipeline, with this number likely increasing in the foreseeable future (Connecting Natural Gas Pipelines, 2019). Pipeline development can have devastating impacts on regional biodiversity, causing habitat destruction as well as fragmentation. Additionally, these pipelines are subject to leaking, posing further challenges for affected ecosystems. British Columbia remains locked in a political struggle regarding the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, which would transport fracked gas from the northeast of the province, south to the Kitimat facility, where it would be cooled and shipped to Asian markets as LNG. The vast majority of British Columbia’s gas exports are sent to the United States; the opportunity to access new Asian markets offers short-term economic potential (Natural Gas Facts, 2020), but at severe environmental costs.
If an LNG spill occurs in the ocean, the gas will evaporate, leaving no residuals behind and causing no impact on aquatic life (Dodge, 2014). However, shipping LNG still produces environmental impacts. Tanker traffic is extremely disruptive to local ecosystems, primarily due to noise and the possibility of fatal accidents (LNG tanker traffic puts residents at risk, n.d). At the time of writing, there remain no federal regulations for LNG tankers in Canadian waters (LNG tanker traffic puts residents at risk, n.d.). Further development of British Columbia’s LNG exports will lead to additional and potentially catastrophic damage to British Columbia’s coastal waters, which are home to many endangered wildlife species and are critical to the health of the province’s population and economy. Whether transported by pipeline or as LNG, fracked natural gas represents a significant threat to the health of British Columbia’s environment, economy, and population. The three are thoroughly intertwined and, therefore, must all be addressed to produce successful public policy. LNG exports may provide British Columbia with short term capital, but this capital means little unless a healthy population can utilize it. There is a chronic shortage of regulatory oversight for British Columbia’s fossil fuel industry, particularly the LNG industry. The absence of tanker regulations and water quality monitoring stations represent the most immediate threats. In the long term, the climate ramifications of the province’s LNG projects may prove to be the costliest. Despite what members of the ruling New Democratic government may claim, British Columbia’s climate plan has no way of accounting for further increases in LNG emissions. As seen below in Figure 1.0, LNG emissions represent a sizeable portion of the provinces ‘carbon allowance.’ That is, for British Columbia to meet its climate goals while maintaining LNG development, much greater offsets would be needed in every other category of climate pollution.
By analyzing and comparing the environmental impacts and industry discourse of British Columbia’s natural gas sector, this paper effectively discredits the gas industry’s claim of offering sustainable solutions for the global economy. The carbon footprint of natural gas, when factoring in all related emissions, is damning. Residuals from unconventional extraction processes threaten surface and groundwater and rely on infrastructure that destroys, disrupts, and fragments British Columbia’s biodiversity.
It is clear that the natural gas industry, along with British Columbia’s government, is engaging in greenwashing to pursue short-term profits, despite the repercussions to the province’s long-term health economic and environmental health.
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