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The environmental case for LNG

Blair King
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Blair King: we can try and meet our own targets, or we can try and make a much bigger and more significant difference elsewhere.

As a pragmatic environmentalist, I have loudly proclaimed my support for the BC liquid natural gas (LNG) export industry. As an advocate for evidence-based environmental decision-making, I feel the need to present the environmental case for LNG.

This article builds on a number of previous blog posts at my personal blog and will explain how someone who is serious about fighting climate change can simultaneously support exporting BC LNG to Asia.

Let’s start with some important background. I believe anthropogenic climate change is real and represents a fundamental threat to the global ecosystem.

I agreed with Canada signing the Paris Agreement, and believe that Canada should work to reduce our carbon emissions.

That said, I believe the Paris Agreement is deeply flawed. It treats each country like a silo and ignores how trade affects global carbon emissions. This is a problem, because the Paris Agreement allows developing countries to set less stringent targets for reducing their carbon emissions.

As a consequence, many highly-developed countries have off-shored their carbon emissions. As presented in this graphic from a journal article by Davis and Caldeira, the US (and Canada) have free-loaded on China’s carbon emissions for years. We do this by importing manufactured goods (and their embedded carbon) which are not counted against our totals.

It’s like saying you’re on a diet, but only counting calories you eat at home – and then eating most of your meals at restaurants.

As Canadians we can do something to help offset our freeloading by helping Asian economies reduce their carbon emissions. Unfortunately, this has the potential to increase our domestic carbon emissions – but in so doing, it should lower global emissions (as I will show below). A lot of Canadian politicians have staked their reputations on meeting our Paris Agreement commitments. They worry that emissions associated with exporting fossil fuels will drive our domestic emissions over our Paris Agreement commitments.

I see that argument as myopic and parochial. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) don’t respect borders. If we can reduce total global emissions by increasing domestic emissions (even at the expense of our Paris Agreement commitments) then we have made the right choice. So let’s get into the numbers.

The most recent research on this topic is the peer-reviewed article: Country-Level Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Liquefied Natural Gas Trade for Electricity Generation by Kasumu et al. This article provides the numbers missing in our energy debates by calculating total life-cycle emissions for various energy choices.

This article demonstrates that when replacing coal in Chinese energy facilities, BC LNG produces lower total, life-cycle emissions.

This table shows how replacing Chinese marginal electricity with BC LNG can result in a net reduction of CO2 by over 52 megatons per year.

Some have argued that the article also reports the possibility that BC LNG could displace renewables in some parts of China. This argument misses the big picture. This magnitude of the emission savings is so large (equivalent to half of Alberta’s “cap” on emissions from the oil industry) that even if it displaces some renewables, the global benefits will far outweigh the costs.

Another argument made by LNG opponents is that China is building newer high-performance coal facilities, so BC natural gas only provides a marginal improvement in emissions (20% – 40%).

To start, China burns a LOT of coal (see graphic from Carbon Brief below) so reducing the emissions of their best facilities by 20% is no marginal gain. As for the argument that China is reducing its reliance on coal, recent studies show otherwise. China is expanding its coal industry, not reducing it. They are locking in emissions that BC LNG can help reduce.

The bigger issue is the Chinese coal-to-gas problem. While the research makes clear that BC LNG will be replacing marginal coal in some parts of the country, in most of the country it will replace Chinese natural gas. How does replacing Chinese natural gas with BC LNG will produce any emissions savings? China doesn’t have a significant domestic natural gas industry – so has instead has turned to synthetic natural gas (SNG).

SNG is created by using a complex, energy-intensive chemical processes to turn coal into natural gas.

The process of turning coal into natural gas is very energy-intensive and produces huge amounts of carbon. These projects lock in emissions that produce around 1.4 – 2 times the emissions for the same energy output as BC LNG.

A comprehensive study of the industry Air quality, health, and climate implications of China’s synthetic natural gas development by Qin et al notes that Chinese facilities emit 4.25 kg of carbon dioxide per cubic meter of SNG produced.

If SNG produces more GHGs than burning coal, why would the Chinese do it? Air quality.

By burning SNG instead of coal, China has substantially reduced air pollution in some of their biggest cities. Making and burning SNG saves lives, even if in the process it emits massive amounts of excess carbon dioxide.

If China produced 32 billion cubic meters a year of SNG in 2017, at an emission rate of 4.25 kg carbon dioxide per cubic meter – that comes out to 136 billion kg of carbon dioxide equivalents just to generate that SNG (or 136 million tonnes, MT).

In 2016 Canada emitted 704 MT of carbon dioxide equivalents. So just to produce the SNG they subsequently burned (or used in plastic manufacturing) China emitted the equivalent of 20% of all Canadian emissions.

A reader directed me to newer research that suggests that Qin et al. may have overstated China’s current capacity to produce SNG. According to this new source, in 2018 China had six SNG plants with a capacity of 6 bcm with a new goal of 17 bcm in 2020. This means that China currently emits 25.5 MT (or one third of the entire oil sands in 2017) just to create the SNG they will later burn.

To put this into perspective the LNG Canada project in total is estimated to emit 10 MT/yr; Woodfibre would generate about 1 MT/yr .

Given the opaque nature of China’s energy business, we can only guess which source better represents current Chinese production, but both cases make a strong argument for exporting lower-GHG Canadian LNG to China.

Ultimately, Canadians have to make a decision. Do we care more about meeting our Paris Agreement goals or do we care about global climate emissions?

A lot of parochial politicians argue Paris is all that matters. The global ecosystem will not thank us if we meet our Paris Agreement commitments – and in so doing, made the problem worse.

 

Blair King is an environmental scientist who works out of Langley BC and blogs at the website A Chemist in Langley on the topic of evidence-based environmental decision-making.

 

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