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Be wary of natural gas investment: expert

The Yukon Legislative Assembly's fracking committee is hosting experts this week to learn more about the risks and benefits of allowing hydraulic fracturing in the territory.

The Yukon Legislative Assembly’s fracking committee is hosting experts this week to learn more about the risks and benefits of allowing hydraulic fracturing in the territory.

Fracking is a controversial method of extracting natural gas from shale rock deep underground on a large scale. The Yukon government has promised not to allow it until the committee has finished its work.

Yesterday the committee and members of the public heard from Mark Jaccard, a professor of environmental economics and policy at Simon Fraser University.

Jaccard’s 2006 book, Sustainable Fossil Fuels, won the Donner Prize for top policy book in Canada. In it he argues that continued use of fossil fuels coupled with carbon capture and storage on a large scale could be key to transitioning to a global clean energy future.

“My conclusions are surprising, even to me - someone who has focused on and promoted energy efficiency and renewables during 25 years as an academic researcher, policy advisor and energy regulator,” wrote Jaccard in a 2006 presentation, available online.

Yesterday Jaccard addressed a fundamental question related to whether or not natural gas development should be encouraged: If reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the goal, is natural gas better or worse than the alternative?

Or, as Jaccard put it, “Is shale gas a climate bridge or a detour?”

Proponents say that natural gas is cleaner that coal and diesel, and should be promoted as a replacement for those fuels.

Opponents say that any investment in natural gas is lost investment in renewable energy. They also argue that, when the full lifecycle is considered, natural gas could in some cases be a more significant greenhouse gas contributor than diesel or even coal.

As for Jaccard, he said the question is more complicated than either side imagines. But overall he is wary of claims that natural gas production on a large scale will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

If natural gas is a bridge, then “it’s got to be a pretty short bridge,” he said.

We are in a situation where fossil fuels are plentiful, as is the human ingenuity to exploit those resources, he said.

There is also no effective global management to steer the planet towards cleaner energy, said Jaccard.

Further, people are very good at rationalizing harmful acts when it is in their interest to do so, he said.

“Once you gather all of those factors, the odds are not good. Which is why I devote much of my life to trying to help all of us wrestle with this very difficult challenge.”

He mentioned, as an example, B.C.‘s political push to expand natural gas production and ship it to China, justified on the basis that it will replace coal as fuel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally.

But will the influx of natural gas delay investment in renewables in China? Will it also depress energy prices, causing a spike in a demand and increasing emissions on the whole?

Right now there is a global rush to supply natural gas to Asia, where prices are several times higher than they are in North America, where markets have been flooded by the glut of shale gas.

But the market is and will remain very competitive, and governments should be wary of companies’ claims of significant returns on investment, said Jaccard.

His advice to the Yukon government is to allow companies to take on that financial risk, rather than making commitments on behalf of taxpayers.

“If industry is trying to tell you how lucrative this is going to be, say, ‘Thank you, that’s wonderful to know. If it’s going to be so lucrative, then we’re happy to let you cover those costs, of infrastructure and so on.’”

Jaccard also suggested that tough regulations can minimize the environmental risks of fracking.

“Even though industry might complain and say that’s going to make it more costly, then it might be better that that industry just not get started at this time and these prices, rather than get started and make a mess that you really regret.”

Governments should require companies to develop monitoring systems for fugitive emissions, an often unaccounted for source of greenhouse gas in the natural gas production process. The company’s monitoring system should be checked independently, also at the expense of the company, said Jaccard.

Jaccard also advised the Yukon government not to rely too heavily on revenues from natural gas development.

“Be prepared for an LNG boom-and-bust scenario,” he said.

“As a government you have to be very careful about what kinds of parts of your budget are dependent on that revenue stream.”

With a talented team, Jaccard said he could come up with 10 different scenarios to supply all the energy Yukon needs with zero emissions, he said. There are “enormous possibilities” that don’t involve expanding fossil fuels. The real question is the relative costs, and technical management issues, that those scenarios might have, he said.

“You really have to wonder about building a lot of infrastructure, either on the production side or the consumption side, for natural gas. And so I tend to be somewhat skeptical of the argument, ‘Let’s rapidly expand natural gas of all kinds, because it will be a nice bridge to this ultra-low emission future.’

“I would be very reluctant to be expanding natural gas for consumption, let alone production, in the Yukon.”

Committee hearings continued through the day Wednesday. Transcripts and presentation materials will be made available on the Yukon Legislative Assembly website.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at