By Mark Jaccard and Brad Griffin
Originally published in the Vancouver Sun July 28, 2010
When it comes to climate policy, Canadian provincial and federal governments have a perfect track record - they have consistently failed to achieve their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets.
Our governments have been setting targets since 1988, initially for 2000 and 2005, and then for 2010 at the 1997 Kyoto conference. In every case, governments have broken their promises, by a wide margin. But few people seem alarmed, as long as politicians deftly replace missed targets with bold-sounding new targets a safe distance into the future.
This situation is tragic when we recognize the severe damage to the planet scientists say is now almost inevitable because of our delusional approach to targets and policies.
The B.C. government has promised to be different and, indeed, it has implemented some of the most progressive and effective policies in the world, including an essential carbon tax, the banning of fossil fuels for electricity generation, and stricter regulations for vehicles and buildings.
Nevertheless, the likelihood of B.C. reaching its 2020 target of reducing emissions by 33 per cent diminishes each year as we fail to attack head-on our addiction to fossil fuels and the emissions they cause.
The latest evidence came this spring when the government approved the EnCana shale-gas
processing plant in northeastern B.C. without requiring the plant to install carbon capture and storage.
Shale gas is natural gas that can be extracted by underground fracturing of shale rock with a pumped mixture of water, sand and chemicals. B.C. has a vast shale gas resource that is attracting substantial investment as advances in extraction techniques have made it competitive with other gas sources.
However, shale gas has a high concentration of carbon dioxide and the cheapest solution for industry is to separate this and vent it into the atmosphere at gas processing plants.
The Spectra processing plant near Fort Nelson vents carbon dioxide and it will soon be joined by the EnCana plant. What is surprising is that the EnCana plant received its permit even though the B.C. government has set aggressive GHG targets and recently revamped its environmental assessment process to consider cumulative effects -the consequence for total emissions of building many plants that together would be needed to develop an extensive fossil fuel resource like B.C.'s shale gas.
Since neither the government nor its environmental review agency has estimated cumulative effects, we decided to fill this gap using standard modelling tools developed at Simon Fraser University that the government sometimes relies upon. We estimated the effect on B.C.'s GHG emissions of a series of processing plants that would, over the next decade, match the exploitation potential of B.C.'s shale gas resource in that time frame.
Not surprisingly, we found that if the resource is exploited without capturing and storing the carbon dioxide, this activity alone will make it virtually impossible for B.C. to reach its 2020 GHG emissions target - especially once one includes the additional emissions from fuel combustion in the plants and methane leaks from associated pipelines (methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).
The conclusions are obvious. The provincial government should either honestly tell British Columbians that, like all past Canadian governments, it is not being honest about its climate targets, or it should ban the development of shale gas unless the industry's processing facilities capture all their GHG emissions.
That option might sound draconian, but it's not. Norway has gas that is high in carbon dioxide and for over a decade it has been capturing this gas and safely storing it. The carbon dioxide in the gas is particularly easy to capture because industry must already separate it to produce commercially acceptable gas. If necessary Victoria could consider providing limited financial assistance to industry, based on a competitive bidding process and using some of the royalties generated by shale gas.
The evidence gets stronger with each passing year and decade that humanity is unlikely to seriously reduce GHG emissions until we have caused severe disruption and damage to the earth's climate, water cycle, ecosystems and the human economy. B.C. says it is one region on Earth that is willing to take the threat seriously and to take strong action -to be truly different from all of our past governments. Its approach to shale gas thus far tells another story.