Gas fracking and coal exports: Two sleeper issues that will surge following B.C. election

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LNG tanker. (Photo:

There's been a dearth of substantive policy debated and alternatives offered during British Columbia’s election campaign. Transit, education, health care, social welfare, housing -- these and other burning issues have received too little attention.

Of more substance has been the debate over proposals to build or expand two tar sands pipelines from Alberta to coastal export terminals. The two leading parties have staked out more or less opposing positions. The Liberals are in favour and the New Democratic Party is opposed (a caveat being the NDP silence on Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that would see a portion of the tar sands product delivered to U.S. refineries just south of the border at Vancouver.)

 Considering the likely election of the NDP, prospects for the tar sands pipelines look dubious, even if one cannot discount the potential threat of legal action by Kinder Morgan to defend its right under free trade legislation to build whatever it pleases. So that leaves the five-and-counting proposals to expand natural gas production in the northeast of the province and ship it via pipelines to liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants on the coast looming very large, indeed. While they may not yet have received the attention, and opposition, they deserve, that will certainly change following the May 14 vote.

 Attention will also grow to the plans to vastly expand Canadian and U.S. coal shipments by rail through the Port of Vancouver. 

All of this promises lots of headache for whoever wins tomorrow's vote.

Fracking gas projects

 The scale of the plans of the natural gas companies is staggering. The latest and largest LNG proposal was announced last week for Prince Rupert by the British-owned BG Gas. It aims to eventually produce 21 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas per year. Initial production would begin by 2021. (1)

 The energy required to power BG's fully-operational Prince Rupert complex would be equal to that contained in the current production of natural gas in the province. Or by another measure, it would nearly equal the electrical production of the Site C dam, a hotly-contested hydro-electric proposal by BC Hydro, the public utility, along the Peace River. It would produce 900 megawatts.

The four other LNG proposals that preceded BG's latest whopper were already going to require the equivalent of half of present-day electrical production. (2)

The LNG plants will obliterate the already-sham greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that a Liberal government put into law (sic) in 2007 -- 33 per cent reduction by 2020 from 2007 levels. The five LNG plants proposed would produce four times the current greenhouse gas emissions in the province. Not to speak of the fact that emissions estimates for natural gas are notoriously unreliable because they do not fully account for leakage all along the production and shipment chain.

Another major natural gas concern is the vast consumption of fresh water required, particularly where hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is used to break up underground rock or shale to release the entrapped gas.

It's not only the volume of water required that is a concern, but also the pollution that is created. Chemicals are mixed into the fracking solution and then it is either dumped or left underground. In North America, the chemicals and their quantity is considered commercial, proprietary information which the public does not have the right to examine.

A rare glimpse into the secretive world of fracking chemicals was provided in an article in the May 4 Vancouver Sun. Among the dozens of chemicals used are hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), xylene, light aromatic naphtha, polyethylene glycol and kerosene.

The oil industry in Canada says there is 'no problem' with fracking. 'Trust us.' It says the chemicalized water for fracking is forced much deeper underground than the fresh water table.

But Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told the Sun there is evidence in Colorado and Wyoming of contamination of drinking water from fracking in very deep zones. The non-profit ProPublica newsroom has reported water contamination in almost 1,000 rural water wells in U.S. regions where drilling is taking place.

Where the parties stand

 The two leading parties in the election -- the incumbent Liberals and the New Democratic Party -- support the gas plans. The Liberals have made it the centrepoint of their election platform, saying the projects will guarantee prosperity in the province for decades to come. The NDP's concerns are described in the party platform, including the oxymoronic assertion that the party will oblige energy companies to follow "vigorous environmental standards and best practices." The party says it is committed to "protecting our environment and fighting climate change."

The NDP's environment critic, Rob Fleming, thinks the province can give a green light to LNG and still maintain its (absurdly timid) greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. He thinks that "alternative energy" sources, namely wind power, and "excess" hydroelectricity can be used to power LNG plants.

Ian Bruce, climate change specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation thinks otherwise. "Given the current level of extraction of shale gas and the required power to export these fossil fuels, we're looking at carbon pollution levels that exceed Alberta's tar sands."

That leaves electoral opposition in the hands of the Green Party. It is polling in the low double-digits. A widely-reported press conference on May 9 repeated the party's call for a moratorium on the fracking of natural gas. Left unsaid was whether the moratorium applies to the Apache/Chevron/Encana project in Kitimat. It received an export approval from the National Energy Board in 2011 and construction of the LNG plant and 463 kilometre feeder pipeline is underway.

The party's Statement of Intent says, "The Green Party of British Columbia is dedicated to getting the province off oil, gas and coal." However, the emphasis in its discourse on natural gas projects is not at all environmental. It is economic. It says that the rush of international investors into natural gas production around the world has depressed prices and will continue to do so. Hence, it fears that the "economics" of LNG will not work.

A word that Green Party candidates in the election often use to describe that attitude to LNG projects is "scepticism."

Party leader Jane Sterk voices several other worrying, if not absurd, qualifiers. One is that natural gas can serve as a "transition" fuel to a greener future. Two, that if LNG goes ahead, the plants should be powered using "renewable energy."

Green Party candidate Chris Aikman on Vancouver Island says it makes sense "to use our glut of natural gas to displace coal-fired generation." British Columbia has no coal-fired electrical production of significance and the argument for natural gas as a cleaner fuel than coal is bogus.

The federal Green Party has little to say on the rush of LNG developments, even though its sole, sitting member represents a riding in B.C.

Aboriginal peoples in the north are caught in a dilemma. The gas companies are offering desperately needed funds to communities in affected areas as well as much needed jobs. Communities in the gas fields are fiercely opposed to the despoliation they suffer whereas those along the pipelines routes or where the LNG plants will be constructed are divided.

Coal exports

 Parallel to the oil and natural gas industries' assault on British Columbia's land, air and water are big expansion plans for coal mining and export. They will make Vancouver the largest port in North America for coal export.

Coal companies in the province aim to increase metallurgical production for export to Asia in three regions -- in the southeast and northeast coal fields, and on Vancouver Island. Opposition is stiff in the southeast, including from neighbouring U.S. states and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On Vancouver Island, residents in and south of Courtenay/Comox have waged a battle for several years to stop the Raven mine that would send as many as 75 giant truck shipments per day across the island’s highways to an export terminal to be constructed in Port Alberni.

Export expansion will come, in part, from growing rail traffic from coalfields in the U.S. west. Coal companies there have been hindered or stopped by citizen opposition from building export terminals on the coast. Three of six planned terminals have been stopped in their tracks. So as a result, reports the May 8 Oregonian, "Union leaders, coal companies and terminal developers say much of the coal is likely to be exported through Canada if Pacific Northwest [U.S.] terminals aren't approved, generating train traffic but no jobs."

On May 10, NDP leader Adrian Dix was asked on CBC Radio Victoria his position on coal exports through BC ports. He dodged the question, saying that the recent decisions in Oregon affecting the three planned terminals "does not affect British Columbia" because the affected companies have not applied to increase coal exports through Vancouver.

But the regulations governing the movement and export of coal are far more relaxed than what is required for pipelines. The public is quickly learning that next to no serious environmental review process exists. If the coal shipping companies in Vancouver (three of them) can get approval for expansion, and they have most definitely "applied" to do so, then the coal trains can roll.

When pressed further on the subject by the CBC host, Dix changed the subject.

The Green Party has it right when it says that British Columbia, and the world, must get off its addiction to fossil fuels. And yes, a moratorium on gas fracking is one starting point (provided it is real). But this will require mobilizing citizen opposition to the ambitious plans of the fossil fuel barons.

What is also required is substantive, alternative proposals. Replacing the current level of fossil fuel-generated energy consumption with "alternative" energies is hardly a long-term solution to the climate threat. Rather, the world's peoples must begin to construct alternative societies in which the profit motive (growth-for-growth's sake) is replaced by a different imperative -- of social justice and respect for Mother Earth.

Only unimaginative dullards and capitalist ideologues believe "there is no alternative" to unfettered capitalist growth and continued dependence on fossil fuels. Changes in public consciousness are already well underway, as evidenced by the small but growing successes in blocking the coal/gas/tar-sands behemoth.

Some countries, even, are embarking on new paths of development that correspond to the necessary limits of our economic and biological realities on this planet. These are harbingers of societal change that give hope in the face of this withering assault by the world's climate vandals.


Roger Annis is a long-time socialist and trade union activist. His writing on Haiti and Canadian politics can be found on his blog

For all of our coverage of the B.C. campaign, visit our special election page here. 



(1) BG Gas is the former state-owned British Gas. It was privatized by a Margaret Thatcher-led government in 1986.

(2) They are Petronas, a Malaysian state entity, in Prince Rupert and Apache/Chevron/Encana, Shell, and AltaGas/Idemitsu Kosan (Japan) in Kitimat.




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