On the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ bad science about BC LNG emissions

Life is very busy right now so I don’t have a lot of time to blog. As such tonight’s installment is simply a quick-take to address a “Policy Note” from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) about the LNG Canada project. The “Policy Note” is titled: LNG Canada: Short-term politics trumps long-term climate responsibility and makes claims that are inconsistent with the current state of science but keeps popping up on my Twitter feed. I’ve written before about CCPA reports on gasoline prices and on 100% renewables) and in both cases I was not been impressed by the rigour of the analyses. This new analysis doesn’t improve my opinion of them whatsoever.

The analysis starts with inflammatory rhetoric including calling LNG Canada a “carbon bomb” and calling support for the project a “form of climate change denial“. This type of rhetoric is unnecessary; it is harmful; but most importantly it is wrong. It is based on the false assumption, the CCPA keeps peddling, that “natural gas is not a “clean” fuel—it is just as carbon-polluting as coal.” It takes some digging to figure out how the CCPA managed to come to this incorrect conclusion but it appears the basis of the CCPA argument is a “Reality Check” called A Clear Look at BC LNG Energy security, environmental implications and economic potential written by David Hughes.

Ultimately, I could end this blog pretty quickly by pointing out that the CCPA analysis has been overtaken by real researchers. Since the report was prepared, a team of actual experts in this discipline produced a comprehensive peer-reviewed article on the topic Country-Level Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Liquefied Natural Gas Trade for Electricity Generation. The article, by Kasumu et al., completely obliterates the CCPA argument and shows that BC LNG can help reduce global carbon emissions. But given the prestige of the CCPA, I think it is necessary to do the next step of explaining how the CCPA came to its incorrect conclusion.

The CCPA argument can be traced back to Part 8 (page 38) of the Reality Check titled Life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions. In this section the author takes the results of a US National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) study Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Perspective on Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas from the United States and adapts it for the Canadian context.

The issues with the CCPA report start right at the beginning of the section. The author apparently isn’t willing to invest the time to research Canadian data (like Kasumu et al. do). Instead he simply takes the numbers prepared by the NETL, for export from New Orleans (???) to Shanghai, and uses them, holus bolus, for a Canadian project from Prince Rupert to Shanghai. The only adaptation he makes is to adjust for tanker shipping distance. As presented in the supplementary information for Kasumu et al., the CCPA report overstates the emissions for LNG regasification, for power plant operations and for transportation. But even using all these overstated values the CCPA assessment comes up with the conclusion (in Table 11) that BC LNG has substantially lower emissions than Chinese coal. An inconvenient conclusion for a CCPA report, which explains why the author doesn’t stop there.

Failing to prove that LNG is worse than coal using slightly souped up data, the author makes a couple of truly interesting assumptions to create Table 12. Table 12 is the one the CCPA apparently uses as the basis for their argument that LNG is no better than coal. Since the Table 11 LNG emission numbers were so much lower than the coal, the author first addresses the coal numbers. Coal represents the lion’s share of primary electricity consumption in China (graphic from Dr. Wenran Jiang’s incredible presentation at @Resource_Works – link https://www.resourceworks.com/sharing-science.


and they burn a LOT of coal


In the last several years China has been building some ultra-modern, high-efficiency coal plants which produce substantially lower emissions than the vast majority of their facilities. In Table 12, the author compares LNG solely to these new plants. The unstated assumption is that the Chinese will eliminate those ultra-modern plants to replace them with LNG. Or put another way, the unstated assumption is that China will close its newest and most efficient plants while retaining the hundreds of old, low-efficiency plants they have in their system. By doing so he is able to cut the differential between Chinese coal and BC LNG down by 300 Kg CO2/MWh.

You would think that this ridiculous change would be enough to make BC LNG less clean than coal, but you would be wrong. Even comparing BC LNG (with his inflated New Orleans production values) versus best-in-class coal, the BC LNG is still 20% lower in CO2/MWh. What is a CCPA author to do? How about figure out some way to inflate the Canadian numbers even more.

The author’s second “adjustment” involves adding a fudge-factor for fugitive emissions. Understand that the original number in Table 11 included the standard NETL correction for fugitive emissions. For Table 12 the author decided to go to the classic anti-LNG activist playbook and pulls out a report by Robert Howarth of Cornell University.

Robert Howarth is legendary in the anti-LNG camp for his 2011 paper with Santoro and Ingraffea titled: Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations where they estimated fugitive emissions from natural gas production. As for the rest of the scientific community, they were much less impressed. His colleagues at Cornell published a scathing rebuttal of the Howarth paper then a follow-up. The Cornell group was not alone. Other commentators pointed out that paper incorrectly attributed to venting, gas that was actually burnt to run production equipment. While others had additional concerns. Here is a link to a well-written summary of the issues with the paper and the various information sources debunking most of its findings. Needless to say the only people who still believe the Howarth, Santoro and Ingraffea work are activists who are uninterested in the science.

Howarth subsequently prepared another paper: A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas. It acts as a sequel to his earlier work and like every horror sequel the original beast, once thought slain, is revived to attack again. The new Howarth study asserts that unconventional wells have a leakage rate of 3.3%. This is more than double the value used by NETL in their analysis. By adjusting the NETL values with a boost based on 3.3% leakage rate the CCPA author is able to raise the LNG number over the Chinese ultra-clean coal number.

Needless to say, the scientific community has very little time for Howarth’s assumptions especially in the context of the BC natural gas industry. Howarth assumes that all unconventional well are vented and flared during installation and development. This would be a human health disaster in North-Eastern BC where venting those concentrations of sour gas would kill off drill crews. Rather, modern wells are generally “green-completed”, (they are connected to a pipeline in the pre-initial phase) and routine flaring and venting goes against BC Oil and Gas Commission Guidelines. While statistics for Canadian venting are not easily available, in the US only 3% of studied wells vented methane into the atmosphere. Just a reminder Howarth assumes 100% are vented. A study by the US Department of Energy showed very low methane leakage (roughly 0.4% of production) while other studies found unconventional wells with numbers up to 1.65% with the general numbers being closer to 1.4%. Coincidentally, the number used by NETL in their studies. Thus, the CCPA “correction” is both unnecessary and not supported by the science.

Now a topic I won’t discuss in detail in this blog post is the additional consideration that LNG Canada intends to electrify some of the critical steps in their LNG production/supply chain. By electrifying some processing, pipeline transport and liquifaction steps LNG Canada will have the lowest GHG LNG on the planet. Had the CCPA author included the electrification of these steps even with all his other fudge-factors he couldn’t make the Chinese coal more efficient than BC LNG.

So let’s summarize. In order for the CCPA to create conditions where “natural gas is not a “clean” fuel—it is just as carbon-polluting as coal” they had to use numbers from the US that overstate basic operational conditions; they had to ignore the electrification of critical steps in the LNG production pathway; they had to use thoroughly discredited fugitive emission values; and then they had to make the assumption that the Chinese would only use BC LNG to replace their most modern state-of-the-art coal facilities, presumably while leaving decade-old inefficient facilities in operation. I ask is that the sand on which anyone wants to build an intellectual construct? For most policy types that would be a no, but when your goal is to fight LNG, come hell or high water, I suppose the answer is yes.

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22 Responses to On the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ bad science about BC LNG emissions

  1. Alison malis says:

    What is the connection between site c and LNG? Argument against both say that site c exists only to support LNG at a heavily discounted rate and so BC taxpayers are subsidizing the LNG industry. I read an SFU paper somewhere that discounted that notion but now can’t find it again. It sure has legs though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Blanes says:

      Back in 2014 Andrew Weaver gave a speech at UBC Okanagan where he discussed the China/Russia 30 year deal for natural gas from Russia to China at $3/ggj, AND at that time BC’s break even cost of producing LNG was $12/ggj. What has changed to make it economic to supply Asia given that obvious unworkable economic situation?


  2. Marc Lee says:

    Hi Blair,

    That was my post you are criticizing but I think you have missed some of the key arguments, so I will repeat them here:

    “LNG supporters argue that we are actually doing the world a favour because BC gas exported to China could displace coal. This is dangerous wishful thinking.

    “All in, some 46 million tonnes of carbon (CO2 equivalent) that is currently underground in the form of natural gas deposits will end up in the atmosphere every year (again, Phase One only). Most of that will be counted in the GHG inventories of the importing Asian countries, where the gas will ultimately be burned, but those emissions still matter on a global basis.

    “The supply chain for LNG is also very energy intensive. For every unit of LNG we export, 1.44 units need to be extracted to cover the overhead of powering the processing facilities, pipelines and the liquefaction process (where natural gas is converted into liquid form). On top of that are the leaks that occur throughout the production process. Natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Even a small percentage (1–3%) of methane leaking along the supply chain eliminates any advantage of gas over coal. Meaning, natural gas is not a “clean” fuel—it is just as carbon-polluting as coal.

    “Even the premise that LNG will displace the use of coal is not clear. Energy demand is growing in Asia, so new LNG imports could just add to existing emissions. In China LNG might displace some coal, but on the margin LNG could also displace nuclear or renewables. In other importing countries like Japan and Korea, LNG is almost guaranteed to increase total GHG emissions.”


    • Blair says:

      It is not wishful thinking to say LNG will replace coal. It is acknowledging that Asia needs energy and that if they don’t get energy from one means they will get it from another. Their first choice is coal, we need to offer them a better choice. To ignore this is to be the one engaging in wishful thinking. In Asia natural gas has been used in company with renewable to replace coal. Using the Pembina Shale gas tool the resulting emission reductions are often as high as 8-1. LNG will reduce global emissions. The climate math makes it clear and you have yet to present any data to counter this argument.
      That 1.44 number you use is demonstrably wrong because it, once again, is derived from the report I critiqued and demonstrated to be incorrect; especially when you consider electrification of the gasification stage.
      As for the rest of your comment. You are simply repeating the talking points from an article that I demonstrated were invalid. The NETL numbers include fugitive emissions. Only if you use Howarth’s discredited numbers do you come close to balancing off the carbon intensity of coal over LNG but we all know Howarth’s numbers are wrong every real expert in the field has demonstrated that they are based on bad data.
      At some point it would be useful if you engaged with the arguments made by people like myself instead of simply repeating the same, tired and discredited talking points.


  3. Joseph Smith says:

    Hi Blair,

    You don’t consider that methane has a much higher global warming impact over 20 years than 100 years. On a 20 year basis the global warming potential of methane is 96 times that of CO2, whereas on 100 years it is 30 times CO2. The study you quote looks at 100 years only. The Hughes CCPA study looks at both the 1.4% methane emissions of NETL in Table 11 and 3% for unconventional sources in Table 12 for both 20- and 100-years. The recent study by Alvarez et al 2018 indicates that upstream emissions from all sources of oil and gas – both lower emission conventional resources and higher emission unconventional resources – is 2.3%, so a 3% estimate for fugitive methane emissions from unconventional gas resources is not unreasonable given that the source of BC gas for LNG Canada will be almost exclusively unconventional.

    The 3% estimate reveals that on a 20 year basis best technology coal is 27% worse than BC LNG in new facilities, and on a 100 year basis is 7% better. This means one has to wait for 50 years or so for breakeven comparing best tech coal to BC LNG.

    This means that if China wants to reduce emissions over the next 50 years for new power, it is far better off choosing a best-technology coal plant than a gas plant fueled by BC LNG, and so is the world as we don’t have 50 years to wait.


    • Joseph Smith says:

      Opps. Should have read on a 20 year basis best technology coal is 27% better than BC LNG in new facilities and on a 100 year basis is 7% worse. Sorry about that.


    • Blair says:

      The 3% is unreasonable for sour gas from modern facilities. Studies of sour gas facilities show much lower results. Looking at the NETL results using 20- year values China is still better off using LNG, that is why the authors had to make all the adjustments. As for comparing against best-technology coal, that is a ridiculous comparison since the worst-technology facilities are still operating and are the ones that will be replaced.


      • Joseph Smith says:

        I repeat. NETL used 1.4% fugitive methane emissions. Alvarez et al 2018 confirmed 2.3% upstream emissions for all oil and gas including low emission conventional gas (nothing to do with Howarth). 3% is therefore likely an underestimate for unconventional gas out of the Montney which will supply LNG Canada.

        My point is that if China is facing a choice of new power to reduce emissions it is far better off choosing best tech coal than BC LNG for at least the first 50 years.

        It is you that is making ridiculous comparisons assuming that if China wants new power it will build an old tech coal plant. China is phasing out old coal plants but building a lot of best-tech ultra-supercritical coal plants that make the BC LNG ‘saving the world’ rhetoric of Trudeau, Horgan and the Chemist in Langley BS at best.


      • Blair says:

        Alvarez looked at American sweet gas not NEBC sour gas and the intention of LNG is to replace existing energy supplies in China and to be combined with renewables as a lower carbon alternative to the current coal-dependent grid.


  4. Richard Hood says:

    Dear A Chemist in Langley. Yes the BC LNG is cleaner than the China Coal when burned in the conventional manner. But when the China Coal is burned using the ZECCOM™¹ (Zero Emissions Coal Combustion) Process it has no emissions. But if you burn the natural gas in the ZENGCOM™¹ (Zero Emissions Natural Gas Combustion) Process it has no emissions. The difference would then be the CH4 emissions in getting the Natural Gas to the end user, Shell has committed to drastically reducing this value) and the CO2 emissions to get it there by ship.


    • Mr. Hood. Please provide links to these ZECCOM and ZENGOM technologies and where they are used. I did find this link: https://www.worldcoal.org/reducing-co2-emissions/pathway-zero-emissions-coal From what I read, there are 4 COAL burning plants that operate and are using Carbon Capture Technology. That is a start, but a reminder, they are heavily subsidized. To be blunt, the term “clean coal” is a marketing term that Trumpopia resurrected, clean coal in nonsense. Envirobeanies seem to be all freaked out about GHG and Coal vs LNG, what is more important is clean air and safe water in general. Thermal Coal destroys both. Mr. Hood, please ask anyone who was an adult in the 50’s and 60’s and lived in Europe or Eastern USA about “coal” – Coal was a disaster. Check out “The great Smog of London”


  5. Joseph Smith says:

    Looks like you deleted my comment ‘Chemist in Langley’. Let me repeat. Alvarez did not consider sweet gas only, he considered all methane emissions from oil and gas. There are no sour gas studies in NEBC that show lower emissions of methane as you state. If you have them please post a link, but otherwise don’t make stuff up. You try and trash studies you don’t like because of your ideology but can’t back up your claims with real data. Which makes your site a complete waste of time.


    • Blair says:

      As presented in the supplementary materials the six reservoirs examined by Alvarez were all sweet gas reservoirs. You have deliberately chosen to ignore this difference. Sour gas emissions pose significant health risks which is why Alberta/BC sour gas has lower emissions. As for BC emissions go to the Oil and Gas Commission website


  6. A simple summary: Humans and all living things need to breath clean air. Click on the chart, green is good: https://waqi.info/ Common sense says where there is lots of red, purple and brown, Coal, Oil and diesel are being burned. It is incumbent on the West to use every means at our disposal to help the East overcome their problems with air pollution. Exporting reasonably priced natural gas to reduce the East’s burning of Coal is relatively easy. Get it done!

    I follow achemistinlangley because it puts a researched and practical response to Envirobeanies who wish that the world will simply “stop” (it won’t). Envirobeanies forever think that even if the West (as in Europe and North America) go to Zero GHG, the rest of the world will simply follow, and all our problems with global warming will be solved (they won’t).

    The West started moving away from “dirty heat and power” starting in the 1980’s. Anecdotally, I remember the pall of pollution over Calgary and Vancouver in the 70’s and 80’s, yet now the pollution is way, way less. I also remember the Acid Rain and Dead Lake crisis, in Eastern North America where so much Coal was burned. Furthermore, I lived with the sawdust burning “beehives” in the Interior of B.C. that obviously were dumb. The point is, we in the West have used our wealth to practically reduce our Air Pollution.

    Yes, the West is on the right track (and yes, we can speed it up) but the West is only 700 million people. Meanwhile, 3 billion people in the far east have very quickly “hit the industrial middle class” and they are burning ever more Coal, Oil and Diesel because it is cheap and practical for their immediate needs. We in the West can’t be so arrogant to tell these people in the East (who simply want to stay warm and have electricity and send their kids to school) that they should turn their lives back 50 years, because (we think) “our” world is on a path to destruction. Sorry, the people in the East will not buy our argument unless we help them with practical cleaner energy now – it is our duty to get the East LNG!

    I have followed this interesting debate regarding LNG vs Coal and GHG emissions. I will simplify: My home (as I am sure your is) has been burning natural gas for heat forever. For years in the 80’s and 90’s I drove CNG powered vehicles. I care about the environment and CNG is obviously cleaner than any other fossil fuel, and it was cheap! (fyi – for whatever stupid reason the morons in power, closed 80 percent of the CNG gas stations). Pretty much most of “cold” North America uses natural gas for heat, Coal has not been used to heat for years, and Heating Oil is quickly on the way out. The only reason why heating oil is used is simply due to cost and entrenched interests. The Bottom line is simple: Coal and Oil are poor fuels for heat and electricity production. LNG and CNG is by far better.
    Again, click on the Air Quality map – it is obvious https://waqi.info/


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