With Victoria's commitment to develop a global LNG industry, should BC revise its greenhouse gas reduction targets?

December 13, 2013

BC stands at a carbon crossroads: developing a multi-billion-dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry would make it impossible to obey BC's 2007 law on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which requires a 33% reduction by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

So far, GHG reduction measures include BC's much-praised carbon tax, the carbon-neutral government initiative, energy efficiency retrofits, and a commitment to renewable power through BC Hydro. These measures have not been perfect, but they represent important first steps on climate action.

There is good reason to believe the plan is working: as of 2010, the last year for which we have data, emissions had fallen by 4.5%, and without BC paying an economic price.

BC's is a good news story precisely at the time when climate action needs to be ramped up on a global scale. In short, global warming is putting our weather on steroids, from record-breaking hurricanes in the Philippines and United States to torrential flooding in Alberta and Central Europe. Here at home, BC has seen windstorms, landslides, and the devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle.

Extreme weather plus oil spills and other damages from extreme energy development suggest the world will, sooner or later, get serious about climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for a ceiling on total emissions going forward. Living within this “carbon budget” is required if the world is to stay below 2°C of warming, the target for international negotiations, and above which is considered dangerous climate change.

That global budget is equivalent to about 30 years of emissions at current levels, and it means two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves are "unburnable carbon". For BC, any plausible share of that carbon budget means at least 80% of our fossil fuel reserves will need to stay in the ground.

So this is precisely the wrong time – morally, economically and financially – to be developing an LNG export industry. Even with a modest three LNG plants, the additional GHG emissions into the atmosphere would be like putting 24 million cars on the roads of the world.

Could LNG reduce global emissions by displacing coal? Not likely. Projections are calling for China to increase its demand for all sources of energy, including both coal and gas (and nuclear and renewables). If exported to Japan, LNG is not displacing coal but GHG-free nuclear. In any event, scientists are questioning whether natural gas is better than coal at all, due to the problem of methane leaks from wellhead to final consumption.

Developing an LNG industry could well be the single most environmentally-damaging activity in BC history. While the GHG emissions are immense, the damage potential from hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to water supplies is raising alarms around the world, with several jurisdictions issuing moratoriums on the practice.

These problems might strike up a classic "jobs versus environment" problem for LNG, except for one thing: there are very few jobs. BC’s Natural Gas Strategy (based at the time on 3 LNG plants) estimated about 800 permanent jobs in LNG facilities and up to 9,000 jobs during construction. Including upstream employment, BC may gain about 5,000 jobs. This is a far cry from the dubious, ever-escalating job claims made in recent months.

The reality is that there are more and better jobs to be had from greening our economy: public transit, district energy systems, zero waste infrastructure and renewable energy. All of these investments create far more jobs per dollar, and could be financed through higher carbon taxes, resource royalties or corporate income taxes.

If BC really wants to "do the world a favour," it should stick with the law of the land, position itself for the future, and drive an investment agenda based around low-carbon technologies and infrastructure.

Marc Lee is a Senior Economist with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He is the author of BC’s Legislated Greenhouse Gas Targets vs Natural Gas Development.

This opinion piece originally appeared online at Business in Vancouver as part of a debate on whether BC should revise its GHG reduction targets.