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.