I just ran across British Columbia’s new provincial natural gas strategy, which includes a specific strategy for expanding liquefied natural gas (LNG) production as a way to mitigate global climate change. That might sound odd to those who are worried–unnecessarily–that gas might be even worse than coal, emissions-wise, but the province seems to have a good grasp of the benefits of replacing coal combustion in Asia with cleaner fuels like natural gas. They’ve also come up with a unique selling point for their LNG, on the basis that it would be produced using low-emissions electricity and thus have an emissions edge over other LNG sources. Whether this will confer an advantage on B.C.’s LNG by enabling it to collect a premium or capture a larger share of rapidly growing global LNG trade remains to be seen.
This story caught my eye because it fit neatly with one theme of a webinar in which I recently participated at The Energy Collective. Although most greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels occur at the point of combustion in a car, truck, plane, train, ship or power plant, the upstream emissions aren’t insignificant and can be reduced in some cases by employing renewable energy in their production. Examples I cited in the webinar included an enhanced oil recovery demonstration project in California that employs concentrated solar power to produce some of the steam used to extract oil from an old oil field, and another project to extract geothermal energy from hot fluids brought to the surface as part of the oil production process.
The case that B.C. makes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from LNG production by relying on the province’s bountiful hydro- and wind power resources is a different application of the same principles. That’s because whether the energy for cooling billions of cubic feet per day of natural gas to its liquefaction temperature of -162ºC comes from a local electricity grid or from burning some of the gas in a dedicated cogeneration facility, in most locations this adds significantly to the lifecycle emissions of the LNG. One study that I found on the California Energy Commission’s site, produced by PACE Consultants, indicates that liquefaction accounts for around 10% of the lifecycle emissions of LNG converted to electricity in an efficient gas turbine power plant. Eliminating those extra emissions by powering a liquefaction plant with green electricity would bring the emissions from LNG much closer to those from pipeline natural gas and increase its advantage versus coal.
So now what B.C.’s LNG projects need is customers in Asia who will put a premium on “cleaner LNG”–presumably in countries that have committed to large greenhouse gas emission cuts that they can’t achieve with indigenous fuels. Japan comes to mind, but I’m sure there are others. These customers would also have to be willing to deal with the longer voyage times from Kitimat, northern B.C. to Asia, compared to competing projects in Australia. That extra 1,000 miles or so translates into higher freight costs and a larger tanker fleet, along with somewhat higher emissions from transportation–though not enough to negate the liquefaction advantage. With so many new and expanding LNG projects around the world competing for market share, I’ll be very interested to see whether B.C.’s new strategy pays off.