It’s hard to balance environmental concerns with the ever-growing demand for energy. Nothing makes that clearer than the debate over fracking, which has now come to the Canadian province of British Columbia. Our northern neighbor’s greenest province is wrangling with a problem that many of its potential customers in Asia would love to have: what to do with its newfound bounty of natural gas. The New York Times reports:
British Columbia is a case study of competing priorities — determination to battle climate change on the one hand, and eagerness to take advantage of a job-creating energy bonanza on the other. […]
[British Columbia gas] production rose about 40 percent from 2008 to 2013. But drillers had trouble selling the gas to one of their mainstay markets, the United States, because of a parallel American gas boom.
So British Columbia began looking to export its surplus to Asia. Eager buyers are at hand. China, which is struggling with air pollution, is eager to find substitutes for coal in its power plants, and Japan wants replacements for nuclear power. Large companies lined up to build multibillion-dollar gas export facilities in the province. Thirteen such facilities are now planned, according to the provincial government, but not all are likely to be built.
With America flush with gas in its own right, British Columbia—and, more generally, Canada—is looking west to peddle its energy surplus. Asia’s appetite for liquified natural gas (LNG) is voracious, but to ship Canadian gas across the Pacific, the gas must be super-cooled into its liquified form, and that process isn’t cheap—British Columbia’s government estimates that a single liquefaction plant on its west coast could cost upwards of $20 billion.
There are plans for 13 such plants already in the works, but green opposition has stymied their roll-out. However, like many green causes, the logic of this environmental stand breaks down under further scrutiny. Green opposition is predicated on a knee-jerk condemnation of anything to do with fossil fuels, but in this case, Canadian LNG could and likely would displace coal in China. That’s a very good thing for both global emissions and China’s quest to clear its smoggy skies.
The Gray Lady describes the environmentalist’s counter-argument, that “natural gas could take the place of renewable energy that nations like China and Japan also want to build.” But that’s an apples to oranges comparison; renewable energy certainly has a role to play in national energy mixes, but wind and solar energy are both plagued by intermittency issues, and are therefore best suited as a source for peak power. Until we get reliable, scalable, and cost-effective storage options, fossil fuels and nuclear energy remain our only options for consistent, so-called “baseload” energy, and to that end, natural gas is a much cleaner source of energy than coal.
Building up LNG export infrastructure wouldn’t just be good for British Columbia’s and Canada’s economy, but it would also be good for the environment. That gas is coming out of the ground regardless; it makes sense to export it to a part of the world that currently relies on a dirtier alternative, and is willing to pay for a cleaner source.