Two of Canada’s top environmental NGOs — the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation — issued a jointly prepared study today slamming our rising dependence on natural gas, warning that the fossil fuel, while generally cleaner than coal, could seriously slow down efforts to combat climate change if our increased reliance on it begins to bump renewables such as wind, solar and biomass from the future energy mix.
Natural gas is often called a “transition” fuel because it emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants than coal and is a good dance partner with renewables — that is, when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow a natural gas-fired power plant can kick in quickly to fill the gap. But beyond serving that purpose, the two organizations argue natural gas shouldn’t become the default option, especially if a rising portion of that gas is coming from shale deposits where drilling and extraction processes can affect local drinking water and lead to higher emissions compared to conventional natural gas development.
“Shale gas requires up to 100 times the number of well pads to extract the same amount of gas as conventional sources, and recent shale gas development in the U.S. has had major environmental impacts,” said Dale Marshall, climate change policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation. “Expanded natural gas production in Canada would bring a host of problems — as well as making it harder to fight climate change.”
I’ve written extensively about the environmental risks of shale-gas development, how low natural gas prices resulting from shale development are contributing to increased oil sands development, and how the physical footprint of shale gas developments should give wind NIMBYs pause for thought. I’ve also been sounding the alarm for a couple of years now on the dangers of becoming over-dependent on natural gas and how this “cleaner” fossil fuel would, with the rise of shale gas, eventually become a lightning rod in the climate-change (and water quality) debate. In my view, and to reuse one analogy I’ve used in the past, natural gas might be the “light” fossil fuel, just as you can purchase “light” cigarettes. But in the case of cigarettes, whether light or normal, they still cause cancer and heart disease, and certainly smoking twice as many light cigarettes to wean yourself off regular cigarettes will make matters worse. The point is you have to wean off all cigarettes, period. We need to treat natural gas like we treat nicotine patches and gums — something that’s used temporarily and in moderation to beat an addiction to something we know, from a health and environmental perspective, is bad for us over the long term.
Unfortunately, when Canada’s energy ministers meet next week in Alberta, I’m sure any talk of a national energy strategy will put the economy first. After all, we know asbestos causes cancer yet Quebec is permitted to continue selling the dangerous stuff to third-world countries. So will the Pembina-Suzuki report have any impact on outcomes? I doubt it. There will be welcome talk on the need to develop shale gas resources more responsibly, but the focus will be simple: let’s develop as much as possible as quickly as possible, sell it to the world, create jobs, and make a few hundred people really rich. There will be no talk of moderation, either for natural gas development or the oil sands.
That seems, these days, to be the Canadian way. Drill baby drill. Extract baby extract. Sell baby sell.