Natural gas not the answer, climate groups say

Natural gas is not a "transition" fuel to a low-carbon energy future, says a report from two of Canada's most respected environmental think-tanks.
Natural gas isn't a long-term answer to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, a new report says. Here, the Rowan Gorilla III is loaded onto a semi-submersible heavy lift ship in Halifax harbour last January after drilling on the Deep Panuke natural gas development offshore Nova Scotia. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Natural gas is not a "transition" fuel to a low-carbon energy future, says a report from two of Canada's most respected environmental think-tanks. 

Switching from coal to natural gas could help meet Canada's short-term goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. But if that's the only change Canada makes, the 2050 targets — an 80 per cent greenhouse gas reduction — would be almost impossible to achieve.

"In the end, natural gas isn't actually a transition fuel. It's something that could actually delay action on climate change," said Dale Marshall, climate change policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation.

Burning natural gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal.

The 40-page report, written in partnership with the Pembina Institute, recommends the government bring in an emissions-reduction plan that emphasizes energy-efficiency measures and renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro.

"If governments are serious about climate change, they have to be moving away from natural gas," said Matthew Bramley, Pembina's director of research.

The report also found other problems with the increased development and production of natural gas. Among them are environmental impacts unrelated to climate change.

Unconventional sources of natural gas —  like shale gas — are becoming more popular because Canada's supply of conventional gas is dwindling. Drilling companies employ a technique called "hydraulic fracturing" —  or "fracking" — to extract the gas. Fracking involves forcing water and chemicals into the rock to free the gas.

Environmentalists and some governments worry about the effect that it could have on drinking water sources.

Bramley also believes shale gas drilling could result in an industrialization of the North American landscape.

"Shale gas requires a tremendous number of wells to be drilled. A typical shale gas region could be drilling in the thousands of new wells every year. You're looking at a well-site every square mile," he said.

The report also notes there are serious regulatory gaps in the production of natural gas. In particular, most oil and gas wells in Canada are exempt from provincial environmental assessments and operators don't have to report the chemicals they inject underground.

Pembina and the Suzuki Foundation released the report to coincide with the meeting of Canada's energy ministers in Kananaskis, Alta., this weekend. The federal-provincial conference is scheduled to include a discussion of a national energy framework.


Max Paris

Senior Producer

Max Paris is a senior producer with CBC News based in Ottawa.