The thing I really don’t understand about the activist class in BC is their intellectual incoherence. They argue that climate change is an existential threat to our planet; but that we should only fight climate change using a small suite of their preferred technologies. They argue that we should care about greenhouse gases; but only those emitted within the borders of Canada. They argue we should electrify our economy; but only if we do it in their preferred manner. They have a parochial view of the world that ignores the international nature of the fight against climate change. On few topics, do they show all these failing at once, but topic of BC liquid natural gas (LNG) is certainly one example.
In this blog post, I want to blow up a few of the latest myths and painful arguments being foisted on the public by the anti-LNG activists out there. Specifically, I want to deal with the LNG topics of “illegal dams”, electrification and LNG as a bridge fuel.
On “Illegal Dams” in the BC Northeast
By now anyone interested in LNG in BC has heard of Ben Parfitt from the CCPA. Ben is the CCPA’s point man on the LNG file. A former investigative journalist, Ben has really made his mark. In particular over the last year he has concentrated on “illegal dams” in Northeastern BC. I put “illegal dams” in scare quotes because, as I will point out in this post, if you want to be technical about it, most of these “dams” aren’t what you and I would consider a dam and most of the “illegal dams” were built following the rules of the day and most of the identified infractions involve catching up with the paperwork associated with a recent regulatory change.
So let’s start with the “dam” thing. Being from BC when I think of a dam I think of structures like the Revelstoke or WAC Bennett dams. Massive structures that stick out of the landscape. An unregulated dam is a terrifying thought as a dam failure would surely result in massive destruction and casualties. But that is not how the regulator sees it. Under the Dam Safety Regulation (DSR) of the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) a dam is defined as:
(a) a barrier constructed for the purpose of enabling the storage or diversion of water diverted from a stream or an aquifer, or both, and
(b) other works that are incidental to or necessary for the barrier described in paragraph (a);
What that means is that a hole in the ground where water from a shallow aquifer can pool on the surface can technically become a “dam” under the DSR. As Ian Fife explains most of the “dams” described by the CCPA in their reports are simply water retention ponds created as part of road-building. To explain: much of the BC northeast is soggy with very shallow groundwater. In order to build roads in these areas the ground has to be built up. To build up ground means you have to find aggregates and fills to use as road base material. When that material is dug up, the resulting holes fill up with groundwater and runoff and voilà this structure becomes a “dam” under the DSR.
As for the dams being “illegal”, in February 2016, the WSA replaced the old B.C. Water Act. Under the Water Act dam owners could extract water from their ponds without special permits. Under the WSA dams owners now need to have a water licence to draw water from their ponds. So technically, until the owners complete all the water licensing paperwork for each of their ponds they are illegal dams in CCPA parlance. Understand, this type of thing always happens when a new regulatory regime get enacted. Older projects are almost always in noncompliance with the new rules and are gradually all brought into compliance with the new rules. Only in the activist community would this type of thing warrant the level of furor we have seen to date.
To summarize, most of these “dams” are not really dams they are at-grade water retention ponds, dug to supply the material needed to build roads, that contain exposed groundwater and because they were built before the WSA was enacted they do not currently have an associated water permit.
As for the Lily Dam Ben uses as his example in virtually every one of his stories (Ben has written no less than 5 reports for the CCPA about the Lily Dam). It is a very special case. As I mentioned previously, most of the retention ponds are at-grade structures (holes in the ground where the water level is at or near the regional grade). However, if the sides of the water retention pond exceed the arbitrary 15 meter height limit described in Part 5 of the Reviewable Projects Regulation of the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) then that “dam” becomes a reviewable project under the EAA.
So how can a water retention pond exceed 15 m in height? When it is built on a hillside. As for the Lily dam here is how he describes it:
The main report before the EAO in support of Progress’s Lily dam project (Progress Energy Lily Dam – Project Description) describes a nearly 23-metre-high earthen structure, or a dam roughly as tall as a seven-storey apartment building.
Now let’s look at this “towering earthen structure” that is worth so much of Ben and the CCPA’s time:
This is not a mighty dam, with a massive reservoir built on a raging river; it is a mid-sized retaining pond built into a hillside over a dozen miles away from the nearest human habitation. Its height is not due to it being built upwards (like you would expect for a dam) but rather due to the supporting structures on the slope upon which it sits. As for its danger to the local community these were addressed by the Environmental Assessment Office in the Dam Inundation Assessment (the assessment of what would happen if the dam failed). That report concluded:
1) the determined flood inundation zone does not impact any permanent residences, seasonal cottages or known recreation areas.
2. Once the flood waters enter the Sikanni Chief River [the nearest downgradient water body], the flow dissipates rapidly to approximately 4 m3/s. This is anticipated to have a negligible impact on the river flows and height, and the mapping was terminated at that point.
3. Considering the above, there is no identifiable population at risk from the d-042-K Dam, other than through unforeseeable misadventure.
For those of you who don’t read legalese the assessment established that if the dam failed the result would be no risk to human or ecological health. The water would run down the hillside and would have insufficient volume to negatively affect the nearest fish-bearing stream. The only potential harm would be if someone was standing immediately downgradient of the dam when it failed and that would be highly unlikely as there are no communities anywhere near the dam.
So this “not quite a dam” doesn’t actually dam a river; its failure would hurt no one; and its massive height is based solely on it being built on a hill. Is there any wonder the Environmental Assessment Office chose to exempt it from requiring an environmental assessment certificate. Yet this is the poster child used by the activists for dangerous, illegal, LNG, fracking dams.
As for the other “dozens” of illegal dams described by the CCPA, only the Lily and the Town dams meet the EAA review requirements and both have been given exemptions because they don’t pose any real risk to human health or the environment. The rest are, as previously described, are mostly small at-grade water bodies that pose a negligible risk to the local environment.
On Electrification of LNG
Now Ben was not satisfied with banging the drum about illegal dams, he is also all astir about the use of electricity to power BC LNG. This latest is the topic for his recent report How clean is a BC that subsidizes accelerated fossil fuel extraction? In this report Ben argues that the electrification of our LNG supply chain is a bad thing. Here is Ben in the Vancouver Sun:
The government wants us to believe that using hydro power to electrify LNG production somehow reduces emissions. But all that electrification actually achieves is to save gas from being combusted in BC so that it can be piped out of the province and burned somewhere else.
Talk about being parochial and missing the point. Let’s remember that the CCPA is an organization that argues we should be fighting climate change. It manages to do so while simultaneously making the unscientific argument that we should only consider domestic emissions when considering BC LNG.
The problem with the CCPA’s argument is that GHG emissions are global and we know that Asia will be needing (and using) natural gas for the foreseeable future. The only question is what natural gas will it be using? Will it use high-carbon natural gas from Qatar or lower emission natural gas from British Columbia?
The most recent research on this topic is the peer-reviewed article: Country-Level Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Liquefied Natural Gas Trade for Electricity Generation by Kasumu et al. This article demonstrates conclusively that when replacing coal in Chinese energy facilities, BC LNG produces lower total, life-cycle emissions. Moreover, if we can electrify the process then our LNG becomes among the cleanest and lowest carbon LNG on the planet.
To put numbers to that argument consider those from my blog post: On the global climate change math supporting BC LNG using the Pacific Northwest gas (PNG) project as an example:
doing the simple math the PNW LNG project has a 18% lower greenhouse gas intensity versus our average competitor… If the British Columbia government can electrify the process then the PNW LNG project can operate at an intensity equivalent to 80% of our competitors. What that means is that if consumers in Asia use British Columbia LNG the global emissions for the LNG will be 20% lower than existing LNG sources. If this LNG replaces coal as an energy source the global benefit of using BC LNG is even greater. So from a global perspective this is also a slam dunk, we sell our LNG to Asian clients and in doing so prevent the emissions of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that would otherwise have come from using coal or dirtier LNG sold by our competitors.
Ben can make his parochial local claims until he is blue in the face, but Kasumu et al. makes it clear. BC LNG (especially BC LNG using clean hydro electricity for the compression and transmission steps) will radically reduce Chinese (and thus global) GHG emissions. BC LNG generated using clean BC electricity will reduce global GHG emissions even more. There is no doubt about that fact.
Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel
To conclude, I want to quickly point to an even more gob-stopping example of an activist losing the thread. This would be the article: The Inevitable Death of Natural Gas as a ‘Bridge Fuel’ by Justin Mikulka at DeSmog blog. The author argues in the article that natural gas is failing as a “bridge fuel” because after having used natural gas to break its coal habit the US is now building more renewable energy infrastructure and therefore has less need for natural gas.
Apparently the author doesn’t understand that the entire point of a bridge fuel is that it will be used until it is not needed. Once you cross a bridge you shouldn’t need to use it again. If LNG is no longer needed then that is a good thing not a failure.
Reading back over this post I see another classic example of how the activists work. They count on their supporters never actually following up or looking deeply into the information they present and they love to make mountains out of mole hills. For the last year I have read again and again about all these “illegal dams” in northern BC and only after seeing Ian Fife’s post on the topic did I spend the time necessary to look into the topic myself. What I found is that the water retention pond down the street would qualify as a “dam” under the DSR and that all these dams are not an existential threat to northeastern BC instead they are essentially just another 50 or so water features in an ecosystem with countless small water features. As for BC LNG, it is a valuable way to help fight climate change.