New climate tests for pipelines are unnecessary

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, January 30, 2016

The federal government is about to roll out new regulatory requirements for Canada’s energy industry. The new rules will require the environmental reviews of pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals—critical energy infrastructure projects—to consider the greenhouse gas (GHGs) effects of those projects.

The move to have pipelines and LNG terminals pass climate change tests raises many questions. How will the tests be conducted? What will be the standards that proposed projects must pass? Will the tests result in “social license” for projects?

But most importantly, are these new regulatory requirements necessary? Do pipelines and LNG terminals increase emissions enough to realistically effect climate change? The answer to these last two questions is no.

Contrary to much of the environmental ire levelled against Canada’s oilsands, the GHGs produced by extracting oil from them represents but a sliver—0.1 per cent—of global emissions.

Even expansion of the oilsands would likely have a minimal impact on GHGs. In 2014, when the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that oilsands production would increase by more than three million barrels a day over the next 25 years, the now executive director of the IEA said, “the emissions of this additional production is equal to only 23 hours of emissions of China—not even one day.”

And that was probably an understatement. According to recent reports, China has been burning up to 17 per cent more coal a year than had been thought, with early estimates indicating that China likely released about 900 million metric tons more CO2 from 2011 to 2013. To put this into perspective, Alberta recently placed a cap on oilsands emissions equivalent to 100 million metric tons.

Given that the total impact of the oilsands on emissions is relatively low, the effects of any one pipeline would be even smaller. Climate scientist Paul Knappenberger gives us a sense of just how small of an impact a single pipeline would have on emissions.

For his congressional testimony on the Keystone XL pipeline, Knappenberger used estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the additional emissions that may result if the pipeline gets built. Using a climate model developed with the support of the EPA, Knappenberger calculated that “the average temperature rise works out to less than 0.00001 degree C per year. That is 1/100,000 of a degree.”

In fact, transporting oil by pipeline may actually lower GHG emissions. In its review of Keystone XL, the U.S. State Department found that, depending on the scenario (only rail, rail/pipeline or rail/tanker), transportation alternatives to Keystone XL could increase annual CO2 emissions from transport by 27.8 per cent and 41.8 per cent.

It’s not only pipelines that will be subjected to climate change tests, so too will LNG terminals. British Columbia’s LNG industry has already been hampered by costly regulatory delays, which may result in the province forgoing export revenues of C$22.5 billion per year in 2020, rising to C$24.8 billion per year in 2025 if the industry does not get off the ground. The new regulatory requirements may only further the delays.

Again, the irony here is that natural gas has the potential to significantly reduce GHGs by displacing coal-fired electricity in places such as China, which consumed more than 50 per cent of global coal consumption in 2014. In the United States, switching from coal to natural gas for electricity is estimated to be responsible for 19 per cent of the reduction of CO2 emissions that has taken place in the U.S. since 2007.

The effect of pipelines and LNG terminals on climate change is negligible at worst and positive at best, based on their ability to actually reduce GHG emissions. The new climate change tests are unnecessary and will add to the regulatory barriers and compliance costs that Canadian energy faces.