Photo: Natural gas is not a solution for climate change

The real solutions to climate change lie with conservation and renewable energy, such as solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal power. (Credit: Kevin McManus via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Communications and Editorial Specialist

Can a fossil fuel help us avoid the harmful effects of other fossil fuels? It's a question that's come up lately as natural gas is eyed as a cleaner alternative to oil and coal.

Burning coal and oil causes pollution and emits greenhouse gases that drive climate change. Exploring and drilling for oil and mining coal also come with numerous environmental impacts — especially as easily accessible oil runs out and we have to rely on deep-water drilling and oil sands. Natural gas burns cleaner than oil and coal, and it emits less carbon dioxide for the amount of energy it produces. This has led industry and governments to argue for an increase in natural gas production.

Canada is the world's third largest producer of natural gas, behind Russia and the United States. Although overall production has been declining here, new sources and methods for exploiting "unconventional" natural gas reserves, such as shale gas, have led industry and government officials to argue that gas could play a role as a "bridging" fuel to kick-start near-term reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.

It's not that simple, though, especially when we consider the impacts of unconventional natural gas, along with extraction methods such as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". A report by the David Suzuki Foundation and Pembina Institute, "Is natural gas a climate change solution for Canada?" examines the key issues around natural gas and reaches surprising conclusions.

Extracting gas from shale deposits, for example, requires up to 100 times the number of well pads to get the same amount of gas as conventional sources. Imagine the disruption in farm or cottage country of one well pad (comprising multiple wells) roughly every 2.5 square kilometres. Each well pad occupies an area of about one hectare, and also requires access roads and pipeline infrastructure.

The method known as fracking has also been in the news a lot. Fracking has been used to extract gas since the late 1940s, although producers only began combining it with horizontal drilling to exploit unconventional gas resources in the past decade. With this process, water, sand, and chemicals are pumped at high pressure into rock formations deep in the Earth to fracture the rock, allowing the gas to escape and flow into the wells.

Fracking requires enormous amounts of water and uses chemicals that can be toxic. Companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they use for fracking in Canada and some parts of the U.S. The process can also release methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide, into the air.

The non-climate environmental impacts of gas extraction alone are enough to give us pause. But the natural gas study also concludes that it is not a good way to fight climate change.

To begin, although it is cleaner than oil and coal, burning natural gas still produces greenhouse gas emissions, as does the industrial activity required to get it out of the ground. Greater investments in natural gas development may also slow investment in renewable energy. Would owners of gas-fired power plants built in the next few years willingly cease to operate them — or accept the costs of capturing and storing carbon emissions — as the push for deeper greenhouse gas reductions increases?

The real solutions to climate change lie with conservation and renewable energy, such as solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal power.

But because natural gas will be with us for the foreseeable future, we must do all we can to clean up practices associated with it as well. The report recommends requiring industry to disclose the chemicals used in fracking and calls for better regulation and monitoring. Right now, natural gas is exempt from normal provincial environmental assessment processes. Clearly, that must change.

It's also time for our federal government to take climate change seriously and to develop realistic plans to reduce emissions. That includes implementing an economy-wide price on greenhouse gas emissions, either through cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, or both, covering as many sources as possible. Although pricing emissions might initially prompt extra gas use in some parts of the economy, models show that will be outweighed by other changes like energy efficiency.

Climate change is a serious problem. Getting off fossil fuels is the best solution.

July 19, 2011

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1 Comment

Feb 19, 2013
1:35 PM

Good Day,

I appreciate all the good work David Suzuki has done towards protecting the environment. However, I feel that the article “Natural gas is not a solution for climate change” is off track. I believe that natural gas energy along with renewable energy is an ideal next step in reducing GHGs.

Your article discusses solutions to reduce GHG emissions that are not available yet. There are solutions available using natural gas power plants along with renewable energy power that could provide significant immediate GHG reductions for Canada. Foregoing these solutions to wait for a “possible” future solutions is not a proactive approach. And while we forego these solutions, new coal power plants or expansions continue to come on line to meet the energy demands.

Here are my points of consideration:

Currently there are no practical massive energy storage solutions, so renewable energy must be offset with an energy solution that can ramp up/down quickly, such as natural gas fueled reciprocating engine power plants, which have efficiencies up to 48.8% (simple cycle) and much higher for CHP or combined cycle solutions.

Your article states that the NOx and SOx emissions from natural gas power plants are still a concern. However if you look at Table 5 of the David Suzuki/Pembina report titled “Is natural gas a climate change solution for Canada”, you will see that coal power produces hundreds to thousands of times more SOx and NOx than natural gas power. And the natural gas power plant NOx and SOx emissions are 0 to negligible.

Your article discusses the possible negative effects of the shale gas fracking process. Not all of the fracking wells cause environmental issues. CAPP ( reports non-fracking sources of natural gas currently accounts for over 90% of all natural gas production in Canada. So I feel that the focus should be on monitoring and improving the fracking process not on discounting the entire natural gas production and natural gas power industry.

Your article states to use multiple renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar to smooth out the power generated. This is not fool proof, and still requires a back up generation source, such as natural gas power.

I look forward to seeing your response to my comments.


Roger Zimmerman

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