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[ A Closer Look at Canada’s Goal of “Cleanest LNG in the World” ]

What exactly is “the cleanest liquefied natural gas in the world?”

It’s a hypothetical fuel that leaders in British Columbia, Canada, have repeatedly promised to deliver in an effort to build public support for their proposed LNG industry. But while it sounds clear-cut, it’s proven a tough nut to crack.

After all, the greenhouse gases locked up in LNG—natural gas that has been liquefied for transport aboard specialized ocean-going tankers—can be measured in many ways. (Vote and comment: “How Has Fracking Changed Our Future?“)

While the idea of “cleaner LNG” has its roots in Canada, the discussion is relevant to the United States, Australia, and other nations that are processing natural gas into LNG for shipment to hungry markets in Asia and Europe, or planning to do so.

First, a caveat: There’s no such thing as “clean natural gas.” It’s a fossil fuel, and it releases climate-disrupting greenhouse gases all the way up and down the chain of production, from the wellhead to the burners on your stovetop or in your furnace.

This is especially true for LNG. In order to ship it, energy companies must first chill the gas to -160°C (-256°F) in giant coastal plants that are essentially industrial-size freezers. The process consumes vast quantities of energy. After it’s shipped across the sea, companies then return the LNG to its gaseous state before shipping it off to customers.

Because of these extra steps, LNG carries a whopper of an energy and carbon footprint compared to unadulterated natural gas.

What Is the Standard to Beat?

At Clean Energy Canada, we advocate for a clean and renewable energy system. That said, our team concluded that any efforts to make this fuel’s footprint smaller were worth looking into. And we were curious: Where is the cleanest LNG in the world manufactured? And could British Columbia’s planned industry meet and beat that standard?

“Clean” is a subjective term that should rightly capture a wide range of potential aquatic, marine, air, and biodiversity impacts across a fuel’s production cycle. In the case of LNG, it would encompass everything from the ecosystem risks associated with fracking to the smog from the plants that cool the gas into LNG.

Because the government of British Columbia said its proposed LNG would have “lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than anywhere else,” we limited our “clean” sleuthing to carbon pollution.

British Columbia’s big talk didn’t just come out of nowhere. The western province’s elected leaders are keen to hang onto their reputation for climate stewardship, which they earned years ago by setting an aggressive greenhouse gas reduction target. Under the existing target, the province must cut its carbon pollution to 33 percent below 2007 levels by the year 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. In an effort to meet these targets, the province introduced a carbon tax and a clean-electricity law, among other policies.

They’re good creds, and the province wanted to keep them intact while also moving forward with its proposed new fossil-fuel export industry. To this end, it assured its green-leaning citizens that the planned sector will produce LNG with “lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than anywhere else.”

To learn what it would mean from a carbon perspective, we scanned the global LNG industry, surveyed best practices, and then modeled various technologies.

What we found surprised us.

It turns out that the “cleanest LNG in the world”—at least from a carbon perspective—is currently produced at Statoil’s Snøhvit project in the Norwegian Sea, and proposed for the under-construction Gorgon plant off the western coast of Australia. The latter is a joint venture of Australian subsidiaries of Chevron, Shell*, and ExxonMobil.

Both these projects are using, or plan to use, carbon capture storage; produce, process, and liquefy natural gas efficiently close to where the gas is extracted and, in Snøhvit’s case, run the plants using electric instead direct drives.

Would-be Western Canadian LNG producers have their work cut out for them to match these plants on carbon intensity. In Canada, there are no plans to use carbon capture and storage, the gas fields that will supply the plants are at least 1,000 kilometers – about 600 miles – away, and the plants will be distributed over large areas with little opportunity for shared infrastructure. Without policy leadership, made-in-B.C. LNG would emit more than three times the carbon pollution of that produced in Australia and Norway per metric ton of LNG.

What British Columbia Needs to Do

We explain how the province could close that gap in our report, The Cleanest LNG in the World?. In short, B.C. LNG companies could be the cleanest in the world by using renewable electricity to power the LNG facility and natural gas production, capturing and storing carbon dioxide and preventing leaks and venting when the natural gas is produced. All of these technologies are viable and commercial.

Many natural gas champions herald the fuel as a “bridge to a clean-energy future,” a concept we pondered with other experts earlier this year at a live event convened by National Geographic and Shell in Vancouver. (See video from the event; vote and comment: “Can Natural Gas Be a Bridge to Clean Energy?“) But if natural gas is to legitimately serve as a bridge, the industry must make every possible effort to reduce its footprint. A new industry-standard LNG plant and the natural gas infrastructure that supports it releases about 12 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year; If every one of those facilities matched the current “cleanest” standard, they would each release five million metric tons.

LNG producers have no excuse not to use the best solutions available, such as renewable energy powered plants, carbon capture and storage, and valves that will reduce leaks, especially since, as our analysis shows, many do not threaten competitiveness.

Business-as-usual has no business in a world that is heading beyond 400 parts per million of carbon. The recent U.S. National Climate Assessment was clear: “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”

The cleanest LNG in the world should not be a boutique product. Rather, it should be the only kind of LNG one can buy. (Take the quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Natural Gas.”)

Merran Smith (@merransmith) is the director of Clean Energy Canada (@CleanEnergyCan), an initiative working to accelerate that nation’s transition to an energy-efficient, ecologically responsible, and prosperous low-carbon economy.

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over editorial content.

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