Nurses and Doctors Take Aim at BC’s LNG Ambitions

Campaign cites health and climate risks, and challenges claims LNG is a greener ‘transition fuel.

Michelle Gamage | TheTyee.ca August 18, 2021

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. Find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

It’s time to move away from fossil fuels, say doctors and nurses. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

[Excerpts] People heading toward the Tsawwassen ferry terminal last weekend may have spotted an eerie sign of the times — a handful of doctors and nurses, standing under smoky skies, hoisting banners warning against the climate threat from liquified natural gas. 

The group gathered to launch Unnatural Gas, a public awareness campaign by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment about the climate and health damage from natural gas. 

The associations say plans for an LNG industry in B.C. — including the $18-billion LNG Canada plant under construction in Kitimat — will drive an increase in gas production in the province’s northeast, largely from fracked wells.

They kicked off the campaign with two large billboards along the causeway leading to BC Ferries’ Tsawwassen terminal and the weekend demonstration.

For Helen Boyd, a registered nurse from Comox and B.C. representative for CANE, taking on the natural gas industry is a matter of social justice.

“We wanted to emphasize the health impacts from upstream production sites, particularly the Peace River region,” Boyd said.

Boyd says natural gas extraction is polluting, and living near wells where companies use hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from shale can lead to serious health impacts.

According to the Unnatural Gas website, there are 20,000 fracked wells in northeastern B.C., covering five times as much land as the Alberta oilsands mines. Almost all B.C. natural gas comes from fracking, which involves injecting water, chemicals and sand underground at high pressure to crack rocks and allow the gas to flow.

Boyd says low birth rateslung cancerpremature births, higher chances of childhood leukaemiaasthma and exacerbation of respiratory illnessesare linked to living near fracking sites.

Dr. Kevin Liang, a University of British Columbia family medicine resident who created the Unnatural Gas website, said it’s also important to raise awareness about the climate impacts of natural gas.

“A lot of people think natural gas is a transition fuel,” Liang said, offering a cleaner alternative to coal or diesel. 

But they shouldn’t, he said. Natural gas infrastructure leaks methane, its main ingredient, into the atmosphere.

Reports consistently find provincial and federal governments under-report methane emissions from the gas sector. 

In July, the Energy and Emissions Research Lab at Carleton University published a report saying methane emissions from B.C.’s oil and gas industry are 1.6 to 2.2 times higher than reported by the federal government.

That worsens global heating, which has brought extreme weather and wildfires to the province this summer. 

At the Vancouver clinic where he’s working as a resident, Liang says he’s seen an increase in people needing inhalers and suffering from respiratory issues and health issues related to B.C.’s heat waves.

Switching to natural gas will displace more than 22 per cent of the fleet’s diesel fuel consumption, reduce the carbon intensity of the fuel burned and support domestically sourced fuel, according to the Clean Futures Plan. 

Nik Pavlenko, senior researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation’s fuel team, says that’s more greenwashing than green.

Pavlenko says switching to LNG won’t benefit the climate, because the lifecycle emissions from natural gas are equal to, if not worse than, other fossil fuels. 

LNG burns cleaner, but that’s just measuring what comes out of the smokestack, Pavlenko says. 

“LNG has lower CO2 emissions and lower particulate emissions which are considered for local air quality,” he says. “But when you actually look at what it takes to produce LNG and the impact of methane leakage throughout its lifecycle, we see LNG can actually have worse impacts than the fuels it’s replacing.”

Methane can have 20 to 85 times the impact of CO2 emissions, so even if a small amount leaks out during its lifecycle of fracking to ferry power there can be substantial implications, he says.

Pavlenko says ferries have some of the leakiest engines, with methane escaping before its burned or released due to incomplete combustion.

Boyd pointed to a recent Stand.earth analysis that found the B.C. government spent $1.3 billion on fossil fuel subsidies in 2020–2021. 

Energy Minister Bruce Ralston told The Tyee that number didn’t tell the whole picture and contested Stand.earth’s definition of a fossil fuel subsidy.

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