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General · 25th March 2013
Ray Grigg
Perhaps the big white banner with black letters at the recent American protest of the Keystone XL pipeline summarizes BC's fossil fuel folly. “Fossil Fuels? Fossil Fools” it declares. The “o”s are painted a hazardous yellow, and within each is an unequivocal “x”. The protest's specific target is the pipeline intended to carry carbon-intensive crude from Alberta's tar-sands to refineries in the US southern Gulf Coast; the protest's broader target is the industrial development that is adding carbon dioxide to an already stressed biosphere.

People who are concerned about global climate change are watching the steep rise of global carbon dioxide emissions. While a few nations have been heroic in their efforts to cut these emissions, international efforts have been eminently unsuccessful. So BC's strategy to export energy — massive amounts of LNG, increasing quantities of coal, and perhaps a tide-water port for Alberta's bitumen — is generating justifiable scrutiny, criticism and concern. People are counting carbon, dreading the consequences and registering their objections.

Not surprisingly, numerous rallies are being held opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. Natural gas is also the subject of worry. Although it's an energy that produces only half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, some experts think that the massive drilling required, combined with the escaped methane from fracking, may make natural gas as carbon intensive as coal. Coal, too, is a target of protest. It causes ecological damage when mined, produces numerous toxic pollutants when burned, and its industrial use generates the world's largest single source of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Since we all live on a planet with one shared atmosphere, BC cannot embark on a strategy of exporting fossil fuel energy without calculating the global consequences. So it must expect both criticism and resistance from those who are counting carbon. Indeed, BC cannot even claim the virtue that its forests are sequestering carbon because new evidence suggests that the mountain pine beetle infestation is so massive that the province's forests are now carbon negative — they are producing more carbon dioxide than they are presently storing. Even BC's claim that natural gas is a carbon bargain is suspect because any gains in reducing CO2 emissions will likely be lost by the energy-intensive process of compressing huge quantities of it for export as liquid natural gas (LNG). Then more greenhouse gases are emitted when transporting the LNG by ship to distant destinations.

If BC were truly interested in its carbon virtue, it might note a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (Jane Petch, Island Tides, Feb. 28/13) which found that all BC's energy needs could probably be met by hydro electricity. Electrical consumption in the province is flat and any increase in demand can likely be met by efficiency improvements. This ethical option is undermined by the expanding industrial demands of mining, gas production and LNG projects.

BC is attempting to justify its strategy of exporting LNG by arguing that this relatively clean fuel — a debatable claim — will displace the use of coal elsewhere, thereby reducing net global carbon dioxide emissions. But a global review of coal use suggests otherwise. And BC's argument is further compromised by its record coal exports. A province more idealistic and less opportunistic could at least stabilize its share of global carbon dioxide emissions by cutting its coal exports to compensate for its LNG exports — something it is not considering.

Between 2001 and 2010 the US was able to reduce its coal use by 5 percent, helping it cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 1.7 percent (NewScientist, Nov. 17/12). But during that same period, global coal consumption increased by 47 percent, simply because other countries are dramatically increasing their consumption. As a fuel, coal is cheap, readily available, and its carbon dioxide output is wholly unregulated, unsanctioned and free. It now produces 40 percent of the world's electricity. And global consumption is at record levels. China, which uses three times the US consumption of coal, is showing no signs of reducing its use. In fact, China has new coal-fired electrical plants in construction that will exceed the entire coal-fired production of electricity in the US.

According to statistics in NewScientist, the amount of coal used on the planet is staggering. “Global consumption is about 71 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, which is equal to the daily oil output of more than eight Saudi Arabias” (Ibid.). This means that any coal exported from BC will simply go to feed the voracious global hunger for energy. And any LNG exported will not displace coal; it will simply be added to the climate crisis already unfolding. And any export of LNG will will eventually compromise BC's own energy needs.

If BC is going to export massive quantities of its natural gas, how is it to meet its own long-term energy needs? What are the environmental consequences of producing the extra energy required to power the drilling, compressing and mining of resources for export? What are the monetary and social costs of such a strategy? What are the economic traps in such infrastructure investment, considering that countries such as Australia already have 17 LNG plants in development? And what are the ethical implications of exporting fossil fuel energy to a world that is already wounding itself with excessive carbon dioxide emissions? Are these not valid questions that must be considered in BC's energy strategy? From a considered perspective, BC is joining the march down the path of fossil fuel folly.