Why is Canada fighting over a gas pipeline to nowhere?

The world is awash in LNG that's a lot closer to the ocean and a lot cheaper to move.

Many of Canada's rail lines are shut down by protests in support of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in what is now British Columbia, who are objecting to a big four-foot diameter gas pipeline. The Coastal GasLink pipeline is going to feed gas to a new Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) plant at Kitimat, which will then be shipped to China.

The Premier of Alberta says that “anyone demonstrating because of the pipeline’s climate impact is hypocritical, because the line would enable countries such as China to burn liquefied natural gas from Canada instead of dirtier coal.”

But is LNG, which is basically methane, really any better for the environment than burning coal? While it is true that burning methane produces 24 percent less CO2 than burning coal for a given amount of energy, getting it out of the ground (and getting it from Dawson Creek to China) has its own footprint. And Premier Kenney is ignoring the methane that leaks out before it is burned, which is 80 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

A new study published in Nature has found that a lot more methane is leaking from fossil fuel operations into the atmosphere than previously thought. The study was the first that could differentiate methane emitted from fossil fuels from the background levels emitted by natural sources, using carbon-14 measurements of methane in ice cores. According to the study, “This result indicates that anthropogenic fossil CH4 emissions are underestimated by about 38 to 58 teragrams CH4 per year, or about 25 to 40 per cent of recent estimates.”

Then there is the issue of losses at the LNG plant, liquifying the methane. According to a Bloomberg article provocatively titled Gas Exports Have a Dirty Secret: A Carbon Footprint Rivaling Coal’s, a lot of it is lost in the process.

As long as natural gas stays in the pipeline, emissions remain relatively low. But the sprawling terminals that export the fuel use ozone-depleting refrigerants to supercool it into liquid form, called LNG. They also belch toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide and release excess methane, a greenhouse gas more immediately destructive to the atmosphere than CO₂.

We have noted previously that just making the LNG eats up 10 percent of it.

Enbridge Gas© Enbridge gas

Then there are the compressor stations which keep the gas moving through the pipeline. The Coastal GasLink pipeline will ultimately have eight of them. These all burn gas; one study indicated that, on average, a reciprocating compressor burned “45 000 GJ of natural gas during the reporting year and the flare burned 2400 m3 of processed natural gas.” That's 42 million cubic feet of gas per year, a fraction of the 2.1 billion cubic feet per day that the pipeline carries per day, but equivalent to the consumption of 684 average American houses. A small matter, but just pointing out that every step of the way, from start to finish, there are leaks, flares, boil-offs, pumps and compressors eating up the gas. What percentage of it actually gets to China? I can't figure it out.

gas prices keep dropping© S&P via Bloomberg

And who is going to pay for it? Gas prices have never been so low, it's a Gasmaggedon. Pushing gas through a $6.6 billion pipeline isn't free, nor is shipping it across the Pacific. Meanwhile, according to Bloomberg,

New export projects from Australia to the U.S. have flooded the market with new supplies at the moment that warmer weather and the coronavirus in China curbed demand. The result is brimming storage tanks in Europe and prices for the commodity testing record lows.

The Coronavirus may go away, but warmer weather and cheaper supplies closer to China probably won't. Meanwhile, Canada is being torn apart over a pipeline nobody needs, moving gas that should be left in the ground. How stupid is this.

The world is awash in LNG that's a lot closer to the ocean and a lot cheaper to move.