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 natural gas issues and reaches surprising conclusions.
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.
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.
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.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington.
Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.