In the lifespan of multi-billion dollar projects, five years is a relative blink. It’s why committing to big infrastructure projects is so nerve-wracking—the world can change in a hurry. Consider that only five years ago, plans were in place to build a terminal outside Quebec City to receive liquefied natural gas from Russia. At the time, natural gas prices were close to double digits and the skies ahead looked clear and profitable. The shale gas revolution, of course, changed that essentially overnight. Prices have tumbled and North America, far from being an importer of natural gas, is now positioning itself as an exporter.
Today’s plans would see natural gas from British Columbia’s massive shale deposits shipped from the northeastern part of the province to the coast at Kitimat. From there it would be frozen into liquefied natural gas (LNG) and shipped through one of seven proposed export terminals to Asia, where natural gas costs three times as much as it does in North America.
The proposals to ship natural gas are getting a much friendlier treatment by the public, First Nations, and environmentalists, than Enbridge’s hopes to move oil to the coast through its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. That’s due, in part, to a perception that natural gas is not only a cleaner energy source, but also one that won’t contaminate the land or sea to the same degree as oil in the event of a spill. Indeed, natural gas, at least in theory, is the cleanest burning hydrocarbon, emitting only half of the carbon that comes from burning coal, the black sheep of the fossil fuel family. It’s a privileged status that combined with B.C.’s abundant shale gas reserves has made natural gas—at least in the eyes of Premier Christy Clark—a bridge to a carbon-free future. But that’s only the sunny side of the natural gas equation. Once you account for fugitive methane leaks that can accompany shale gas production that bridge can start looking more like a gangplank.
Recent studies by academics at Harvard, Stanford and other top schools found that fugitive methane can put natural gas in the same carbon-emitting conversation as coal. As a greenhouse gas, methane, the principal component of natural gas, is roughly 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Fugitive methane is what escapes during all the fracking and drilling that comes with tapping shale reserves. Turns out that a lot more methane is going unaccounted for than previously thought.
British Columbia has a lot riding on its natural gas reserves. Even with such high economic stakes at play, though, its provincial environment ministry is still warning that a burgeoning LNG industry could double B.C.’s total emissions, blowing its hopes for reductions of future carbon emissions out of the water. The province’s pro-development premier is hinting this is something she can live with. Playing fast and loose with far off emissions targets is one thing, but Clark may still want to take a long look at what will happen to gas prices once the energy largesse of the shale revolution extends to markets across the Pacific.
Right now, the U.S. and Canada are the only two places in the world with commercial production of shale gas. Just because we’re the only countries doing it, though, doesn’t mean we’re the only ones with reserves. Shale gas can be found all over the world.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, some 7.3 trillion cubic feet of shale gas exists around the world, a figure that boosts previous estimates of global gas reserves by nearly 50 percent. What’s more, China, one of the countries expected to be a critical long-term customer for North American LNG exports, is also moving ahead with exploiting its massive deposits of shale gas, thought to be the largest in the world.
Why aren’t shale reserves in other countries being fracked and produced as they are in North America? To date, a number of stock answers are often provided. North America has a highly developed energy infrastructure and an industry with a degree of engineering know-how that’s ahead of the curve in developing and rolling out the horizontal drilling technology needed to tap reserves of so-called tight gas. It also has the rivers and aquifers necessary to meet the water-intensive needs of drilling for shale gas. In other countries with shale gas reserves, such as France, Germany and the U.K., the attitude towards the environment, and its attendant political currency, is also much different than it is in Drill-Baby-Drill North America. All that said, the economics are compelling enough that other countries are already well on their way to joining Canada and the U.S. on the shale gas train.
Once fracking technology opens up shale gas reserves overseas, why wouldn’t the onset of new production have the same dramatic effect on prices in the rest of the world as it has in North America? If that happens, why would Asian countries want to import expensive LNG from across the Pacific? Taking it a step further, why would anyone want to build a pipeline across B.C. to Kitimat to supply an albatross of an LNG plant that will be lucky to scrape by with economics that will suddenly have become exceedingly marginal.
The shale gas revolution in North America reversed the polarity of global LNG flows. The spread of the shale gas revolution to Asia and Europe could have just as big of an impact. Will North America’s LNG hopes, from plants to pipelines, soon become obsolete?