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Natural Gas: Friend or Foe?

Just how natural is natural gas? Well, it does exist in nature—so do coal and oil. But so-called natural gas shouldn’t be mistaken for clean or “green” energy. In fact, a more accurate term for it would be “fracked gas” since these days most of the gas is extracted using hydraulic fracturing (fracking). 

Fracked gas deposits are found underground, both on land and offshore. This gas is used to generate electricity and heat. The oil and gas industry has put a lot of money into marketing the substance—first as a so-called solution to the dependence on oil, and now as a “bridge fuel,” further delaying the much-needed transition to clean non-emitting renewable energy.

Fracked Gas at a Glance
  • Fracked gas is primarily composed of methane.
  • Methane emissions are a more potent source of atmospheric warming than carbon dioxide. The impact of a tonne of methane is equivalent to between 84 and 87 tonnes of CO2 over a 20-year timeframe (see International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2017, p. 405).
  • Extracting fracked gas is harmful to local communities, most notably due to the contamination of drinking water.
  • Investing in fracked gas infrastructure delays the transition away from fossil fuels and undermines efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses.

Methane has already taken a serious toll on our atmosphere and it has the potential to do a lot more damage.

“Methane is a powerful but short-lived climate pollutant that accounts for about half of the net rise in global average temperature since the pre-industrial era.”

About the Global Methane Pledge

Concern over the climate heating effect of methane resulted in the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. More than 100 countries—including Canada—have pledged to help reduce current global methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Investing in methane-producing fracked gas plants will not get us there.

Massive methane leaks occur in the extraction, processing, and transportation of fracked gas. The latest International Energy Agency report shows that actual methane emissions from the energy sector are 70 percent higher than official figures (often self-reported by the industry). Check out this very cool photo essay published by the New York Times, which shows large methane leaks (invisible to the human eye) through a powerful infrared camera.

“Climate scientists say that rising production of natural gas is emerging as one of the biggest drivers of climate change, and that plans for industry expansion could hobble efforts to stabilize the Earth’s climate.”

Explainer: Cleaner but not clean

The Union of Concerned Scientists is one of many organizations that has expressed concerns about the health impacts of fracking for natural gas:

Some areas where drilling occurs have experienced increases in concentrations of hazardous air pollutants and two of the six “criteria pollutants” — particulate matter and ozone plus its precursors — regulated by the EPA because of their harmful effects on health and the environment. Exposure to elevated levels of these air pollutants can lead to adverse health outcomes, including respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas

Although fracked gas is often touted as a “clean alternative” to coal, given what we know about its harmful health and environmental impacts, it’s more apt to call it the “new coal.”  

Spotlight on Atlantic Canada

In Nova Scotia, fracked gas is currently used at the Tufts Cove Generating Station in Dartmouth; it has a generating capacity of 500 MW. Nova Scotia Power wants to transition two of its coal-fired generating units to fracked gas (Trenton 6 and Point Tupper 2). In addition, Nova Scotia Power plans to build new fracked gas infrastructure; it’s considering whether to build a fracked gas generating station or a suite of smaller generators.

In New Brunswick, fracked gas is used at the Grandview Cogeneration Plant in Saint John to power an Irving Oil refinery. Also, the Bayside Generating Station, which NB Power purchased from Emera Energy Inc. in 2019, also runs on fracked gas. In 2018, fracked gas accounted for 12 percent of electricity in the province.

Prince Edward Island does not generate electricity using fracked gas, however, they import power from New Brunswick. PEI has done exploratory drilling for fracked gas (20 wells to date).

Newfoundland and Labrador has offshore gas deposits, which have been used to power offshore crude oil facilities. It’s estimated the province has 12.6 trillion cubic feet of commercial-quality natural gas deposits. If these deposits are tapped into, it would be a major setback in Canada’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Drilling and transportation of the province’s fracked gas could lead to devastating environmental harm.

As governments and utility companies in the region look to phase out coal- and oil-fired electricity, it’s vital that they not invest in yet another fossil fuel. Clean, non-emitting energy solutions already exist—and they’re affordable. 

Where do we go from here?

In 2021, the International Energy Agency released its groundbreaking Roadmap to Net Zero, warning that countries must immediately stop all new fossil fuel investments and infrastructure if we are to have a shot at containing the rising global temperature to within liveable limits. 

This includes fracked gas. The Global Methane Pledge also underscores the urgency of reducing methane emissions from the energy sector. 

“The myth of gas as a ‘bridge’ to a stable climate does not stand up to scrutiny. While much of the debate to date has focused on methane leakage, the data shows that the greenhouse gas emissions just from burning the gas itself are enough to overshoot climate goals.

—Burning the Gas ‘Bridge Fuel’ Myth, Oil Change International

Investing in new fracked gas plants runs counter to Canada’s commitment, as does unnecessarily prolonging the life of existing fracked gas power stations.

In 2021, the state of New York denied permits for two fracked gas plants, citing the state’s climate law. 

Unfortunately, governments are still subsidizing the oil and gas industry to the tune of billions of dollars annually, and weak climate policies and inadequate government oversight give the industry tremendous power.

It’s time to take the fossil fuel industry off life-support and leave fracked gas and other fossil fuels where they belong: in the ground.

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