The production of coal energy is coming to an end with the last Ontario plant scheduled for closure in 2014. Now Canadians are looking to other sources of fuel for electricity production to make up the base and demand loads necessary to guarantee an uninterrupted supply to homes and industry. With nuclear energy proving too expensive and potentially dangerous, many countries are turning to natural gas as a viable alternative. Now some environmentalists are questioning claims that natural gas is a clean, green source of energy.
“The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over the coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming,” says Professor Robert Howarth, Cornell University. The objection to natural gas is twofold: there are substantial carbon emissions during energy production and the process of fracking (which is used when mining natural gas) contributes just as much to global warming as coal-fired plants do.
Natural gas originally won its green-energy status because its carbon emissions are about half those of coal-fired energy plants. Natural gas is a non-renewable resource that is extracted, cleaned and then burned in turbines and boilers to create steam, power turbines and produce electricity. Plants powered by gas do output reduced nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide emissions when compared to coal-burning plants. However, methane released when gas is not completely burned, as well as during the production of natural gas negate the positive aspect gas plants enjoy.
Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas that is trapped deep beneath shale beds. Long wells are drilled to the gas reserves (usually about 1km or deeper). A mixture of chemicals, water and sand is then pumped into the ground to force the gas up through fissures in the shale where it is collected. We are not entirely sure what impact fracking has on the environment as the cocktail of chemicals used in the process has been deemed a ‘trade secret’. We are, however, able to measure the emissions from plants that produce natural gas. A February 2012 study discovered that the production, transportation and burning of natural gas caused the release of considerable amounts of methane into the atmosphere.
Fracking has also been linked to water pollution, earthquakes and the destruction of pristine environments. New studies show that the chemical cocktail used in fracking will leach into groundwater aquifers sooner than expected. France and Bulgaria have banned fracking in reaction to environmental concerns, but the practice is still enjoying unprecedented growth in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, China and other countries. In the US, shale gas accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s gas production. 70% of gas wells in Canada utilize fracking in the extraction processes.
The EPA sets the average leakage of gas production plants at 3.3% and that number increases to 9.7% where fracking is employed to extract gas. Natural gas consists of 85% methane and is a whopping 105 times worse for global warming than other greenhouse gas emissions. Methane on its own is 25 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When methane reacts with aerosols in the atmosphere, this global warming effect is compounded.
The idea that natural gas may provide a panacea to our energy needs is being challenged. This has not had a discernible impact on the growth of gas plants according to Sheamus MacLean of Economic Performance Architects. Cheap gas prices have led to the adoption of this form of energy production over renewable energy sources like wind or solar. Reliance on natural gas energy may prove to be a leap from the frying pan into the fire due to the global warming and environmental impacts of gas extraction and energy production.
Fossil fuel companies have got it good. Our reliance on the energy that these industries produce has led to an ” unholy alliance with government based not just on the money that they contribute to political campaigns and spend on lobbying but on their ability to hypnotize us with false prices,” according to Dylan Rattigan’s new expose aptly titled Greedy Bastards. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed subsidies, tax breaks, military assistance in volatile areas and help cleaning up environmental disasters while bragging about keeping the cost of fuel down.
The true cost of fossil fuels is not just environmental, but fiscal too. The industry receives an annual bailout of $10 – $40 billion and, according to an Environmental Law Institute study, oil companies alone received $72 billion in handouts between 2002 and 2008. When disasters occur, the fossil fuel industry relies on government to help clean up the mess, utilizing tax payer’s money to do so.
The coal industry is also heavily subsidized. A 2009 report from the National Research Council investigated the massive toll that air pollution, resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, takes on public health. They estimated that over $120 billion is spent annually on diseases resulting from air pollution. A Harvard study on the health costs of coal was even more dire; “Between the land disturbance, the mountaintop removal, the processing … and the combustion, we estimate that this is costing the American public somewhere between a third to half a trillion dollars in health costs and deaths,” said Dr. Paul Epstein, lead researcher of the Harvard study. The study found the true cost of coal was about 26.86 cents more per kWh than we currently pay. The American Economics Review crunched the numbers and discovered that the electricity generated by coal actually cost more than it was worth.
If the true costs of fossil fuel energy were represented in the price, the move to renewables would be expedited. The problem is that no one wants to pay the true price of fossil fuels and they are reticent to make the investment that switching to renewables would entail. The solution? Fee and dividend schemes have been suggested by several leading thinkers in the industry. Under this model, the fossil fuel companies would be charged a small annual fee which would then be distributed to the public. NASA’s Dr. James Hansen is a proponent of the scheme: “The price of fossil fuel energy will rise, but with today’s fossil fuel uses, over 60 percent of the people will get more in their dividend than they pay in increased energy prices. People who have several houses or fly around the world all the time will have costs that increase more than their dividend. People will tend to make consumer and lifestyle choices that minimize their carbon emissions—this will happen naturally via the prices that they see.”
The Obama administration calls for the end to fossil fuel subsidies every year; a call that garners much bi-partisan support. However, election campaign handouts serve to secure the fossil fuel industry subsidies. Some European countries have thrown off the shackles of fossil fuel subsidies. Although gas costs two to three times what we pay for it, the rush to build more fuel efficient homes and vehicles means that soon they will have weaned themselves from their reliance on fossil fuel and will, ultimately, be paying less for their energy. Less money spent on energy, and also on healthcare and military support for the fossil fuel industries overseas will increase their savings exponentially.
Canadians have a deep and abiding love for their natural spaces, the animals that populate them and (apparently) elections. As campaign boards blossom along with spring flowers, we prepare once more to sally forth into the realms of campaign rhetoric. Each party has a strong green platform, aware of the support that this engenders from environmentally conscious Canadians. We have set out to explore the platforms of the four biggest parties here. Statements to support initiatives, encourage development or create incentives without definitive plans on how this will be accomplished have been omitted. This outline is the nuts and bolts, rather than an exhaustive expose, of the policies proposed.
- Provide a $400 million Green Renovation Tax to retrofit over 1 million homes by 2017. Canadians who make energy saving renovations to their homes will be eligible for tax cuts up to $13, 500.
- Refund 50% of an energy audit that precedes renovations to homes and businesses.
- Reinstate the Renewable Power Production Inventive (RPPI) which will provide $1 billion in incentives for the development of renewable energy technologies to increase Canada’s renewable energy production to 10% of the total output by 2017.
- End the tax break to the oil sands development and use the $500 million created by tax revenue to fund development of technology to reduce green house gas emissions and other negative impacts of oil sand development. Research and monitoring of oil sand development will also benefit from the fund.
- Implement a cap and trade system for industry with an aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Pollution will be taxed at $10 per tonne, rising to $40 per ton after four years.
- Provide $100 million to restore the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Waterway, clean up Lake Winnipeg and reduce invasive species such as zebra mussels.
- Expand marine protected areas and rationalize fishing fleets to save fisheries in crisis.
The NDP will:
- Reduce air pollution to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
- Implement a cap and trade policy to tax industrial pollution.
- Use income from cap and trade (an estimated $1.2 billion) to develop green technologies, promote energy conservation, develop public transport and train workers for the green industry.
- Cut subsidies for non-renewable energy and use these funds to reinstate federal incentives for renewable energy including the development of new technology.
- Provide funds for retrofitting homes to reduce energy consumption.
- Increase assessment and regulation of fisheries and oil sand sector.
- Create the ‘Green Bonds’ fund for research and development of renewable energy technologies.
- Encourage transit use by providing tax cuts for people who use public transport to get to their workplaces.
The Conservatives will:
- Create new protected areas, marine conservation areas and national parks including the Mealy Mountains National Park and the Rouge Valley in Toronto.
- Extend the ecoENERGY retrofit program to improve the energy consumption of homes.
- Invest $113 million in to the Environmental Enforcement Action Plan with a further $25 million which will help to police industries and individuals who commit environmental crimes. This will include the creation of a team of environmental prosecutors, a public database of environmental offenders and new fines for transgressors.
- Provide investments to reduce green house gases and provide support for the development and research of clean energy and energy efficient technologies.
The Green Party will:
- Provide tax cuts for companies and individuals who live green.
- Effect tax reforms and investments to create green jobs.
- Initiate the ‘Green Jobs’ program which will help Canadian manufacturers who invest in green technologies.
- Create a green building program to provide funds to retrofit homes and make them more energy efficient.
- The green energy sector will support community power projects which allow Ontarians to contribute power to the grid by providing $540 million for solar roof programs over three years.
- Introduce a carbon tax.