Cleanest LNG Needs Teeth

We’re catching our first hints of whether or not British Columbia’s liquefied natural gas companies intend to make good on the province’s promise to produce “the cleanest LNG in the world.” There are plenty of good reasons for the emerging sector to do so beyond reducing its climate impact, including, notably, producing hundreds more jobs.

But so far, at least, it’s very much a mixed bag.

First, the encouraging news. Woodfibre LNG confirmed recently it would run its proposed Howe Sound facility on clean electricity instead of fossil fuels. Assuming the company secures the necessary environmental approvals and earns the support of First Nations, each year it proposes to produce and ship two million tonnes of LNG from a plant near Squamish.

Woodfibre LNG intends to link its facility directly to the BC Hydro grid, which delivers 92-per-cent clean and renewable electricity. As a result, at least from a carbon-pollution perspective, its LNG would indeed beat the global gold standard for carbon pollution.

The company’s leadership is commendable, but its contribution is mostly symbolic. To have a sense of the impact of the considerably larger plants proposed for the North Coast, we can dive into a recently released regulatory filing for Pacific NorthWest LNG: a $11.4 billion facility that Malaysian energy giant Petronas would like to build on Prince Rupert’s waterfront. Petronas filed at the end of March its required environmental impact statement for its proposed plant. It is the first of many such documents that will wend their way through the regulatory process, as a long line of LNG proponents aspire to break ground in the region.

The filing details the would-be plant’s anticipated impacts on issues from ambient light, to noise, to salmon stocks, to air quality. At more than 1,000 pages, it is as sprawling as the proposed facility. At full capacity, Pacific NorthWest LNG would produce up to 18 million tonnes of LNG each year, nine times as much as the Squamish plant.

The Petronas document makes all the right noises; it assures the government that Pacific NorthWest LNG will employ best-management practices, utilize “best-in-class” technologies, and so on. The fine print tells a different story. At peak capacity, section 7.5.2 notes, “the project GHG intensity will be a ratio of 0.27 t CO2e/t LNG.”

In plain English, this means each tonne of LNG the Petronas facility produces will release 0.27 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

While this is generally in line with industry practices, it is a far cry from the leadership demonstrated by Woodfibre and not even close to the “cleanest LNG in the world.” Instead, the Petronas document highlights how the sector’s bigger fish will not likely deliver on the province’s climate leadership ambitions unless — and until — the government explicitly directs them to do so.

Here’s why Victoria should: Our recent research shows if a given LNG plant ran on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, it would not only slash its carbon pollution by one third, it would also create 400 more permanent, local jobs. Petronas does not plan to take advantage of these benefits. Instead, it will power its equipment by burning a portion of the natural gas coming into its plant. This will not only produce vastly more carbon pollution, it will degrade air quality in Prince Rupert.

Based on interviews with gas-industry consultants and suppliers, we conclude there is no good reason not to use electric drives combined with renewable energy to power British Columbia’s LNG plants. The only thing standing in the way is industry inertia.

The government of B.C. has assured citizens its new LNG industry will be the “cleanest in the world.” It will reiterate these claims next week at a major industry conference it is playing host to in Vancouver, featuring 1,200 delegates from around the world. Government has committed to announce an LNG policy framework that would likely address carbon pollution in the sector, but it has yet to be made public.

The Petronas application gives us a good idea how this new industry will look if that anticipated framework lacks teeth. It throws into sharp relief the impossibility of claiming world leadership on carbon pollution in the absence of a policy that would deliver it. We hope, and expect, government will do the right thing for Prince Rupert and Kitimat, for the climate, and for us all.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun.

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