This is a question SecondStreet.org recently investigated and documented in our new video, “Quebec’s Green Opportunity”. This post includes a bit more information on the subject.
Current natural gas usage in Quebec:
Currently, Quebec imports approximately $2 billion each year worth of natural gas from the United States and western Canada. Natural gas is used for a variety of purposes in Quebec: heating hospitals and office towers, industrial purposes and cooking in restaurants to name a few.
Overall, natural gas represents 15% of the province’s annual energy consumption.
According to the Quebec Energy Association, the province could replace all of its natural gas imports by producing its own local gas, located in the St. Lawrence Lowlands area and other parts of the province. Thus, instead of $2 billion leaving the province each year, the funds would largely stay in Quebec and help create jobs for Quebecers. The companies and workers involved in natural gas development would also pay taxes to the government – money that could be used to pay for schools, hospitals, fixing roads, debt repayment, tax relief and more.
While the economic benefits are significant – especially as Quebec’s economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic – the environmental benefits are also substantial.
Natural gas, like other natural resources, generates carbon dioxide emissions during transportation and processing (to remove impurities). However, Quebec is fortunate in that it has some of the purest natural gas reserves in the world.
During a discussion with Questerre CEO Michael Binnion about natural resource development in Quebec, he indicated that much of the province’s gas supply is so pure that it could be put “straight into your house without processing.”
Similarly, a 2020 report from Montreal think-tank MEI noted the natural gas that exists in Quebec is “intrinsically cleaner than the same resource we are currently importing.”
Another key environmental benefit that would come from Quebec using local natural gas is that it would have a much lower carbon footprint than the gas that is currently transported all the way from western Canada or the United States.
To assess this advantage, SecondStreet.org hired Petrel Robertson Consulting, a global consulting firm with expertise in oil and gas development.
Specifically, we asked them to assess what the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be if Quebec used local natural gas rather than imports. The firm concluded:
“Quebec consumes large quantities of natural gas – 216 billion cubic feet (BCF) (6.12 billion m3) in 2019. Considerable energy is expended in transporting gas from producing areas in western Canada and the U.S. to Quebec.
CO2 emissions associated with transportation energy depend on many variables and assumptions. Choosing reasonable assumptions, we calculate that producing Quebec’s gas supply in the province instead of importing it from western Canada or the United States could save up to almost 170,000 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year, which is comparable to removing about 35,000 cars from the road each year.”
While natural gas from Quebec has an emissions advantage due to shorter transport for the resource and fewer emissions during processing, there is still the matter of emissions that come from burning the fuel by end-use consumers.
The U.S. Environmental Information Administration (EIA) has some useful data: related to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels:
Pounds of CO2 emitted per million British thermal units (Btu) of energy for various fuels
|Diesel fuel and heating oil||161.3|
|Gasoline (without ethanol)||157.2|
According to the EIA’s data, natural gas is the cleanest of all fossil fuels. Compared to coal, natural gas produces roughly 50% less CO2 as an energy source. Compared to gasoline, its carbon footprint is roughly 25% lower.
In terms of natural gas infrastructure, the resource has the lowest environmental impacts across all forms of energy development. Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has been safely practiced in Canada for over 60 years and the resource is mostly transported through pipelines no wider than a coffee cup.
The Quebec government has studied natural gas development for many years. Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources of Quebec has, by its own admission, concluded that natural gas is non-toxic, safe and beneficial for reducing GHG emissions across the province:
“Because of its less polluting nature than petroleum products, such as gasoline or oil, and its energy efficiency, natural gas is a transitional energy profitable for Quebec which contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Despite the fact developing and using local natural gas could help Quebec reduce its emissions, many environmental groups still oppose any usage of the fuel.
For instance, the Sierra Club’s Rachel Golden told the USA Today:
“There’s no pathway to stabilizing the climate without phasing gas out of our homes and buildings. This is a must-do for the climate and a livable planet…”
For many environmentalists, reducing emissions through utilizing different sources of fossil fuels isn’t acceptable. They simply want society to go straight to abstinence from using the resource all together.
An abundance of misinformation campaigns has contributed to efforts to prevent natural gas development in North America – most notably concerns about methane infecting local tap water supplies.
The film Gasland includes a famous scene where a Pennsylvania homeowner opens the tap in his kitchen sink and lights it on fire. The methane in the tap is allegedly due to fracking nearby.
But as the documentary FrackNation exposes, people in the same Pennsylvania region had been lighting their taps on fire long before fracking began – the director of Gasland even conceded the point. The reality is that methane sometimes comes to the surface, including when water wells are drilled. To protect homeowners, modern government regulations require ventilation before well water enters a home.
Not only have studies refuted the correlation between methane contamination and tap water, strict safety and environmental regulations across Canada prevent such contamination from occurring. In fact, it is common knowledge among Geoscientists that many water aquifers below the ground contain methane – irrelevant of nearby or distant fracking sites.
Despite this, activists continue to insist that fracking is the leading cause of methane contamination in water, even though legislation requires all well-bores to be encased in steel and cement, and natural gas extraction occurs, on average, 2-3 kilometres
below the majority of fresh-water aquifers.
The politics of natural gas
A 2018 poll from MEI notes that 53 per cent of Quebecers would rather develop and use the province’s own oil supplies rather than rely on oil from outside the province. Only 25% disagreed with this option, preferring to continue to import the oil used by the province.
While this poll question concerns oil development, and not natural gas, it is reasonable to assume public support might actually be a bit higher for cleaner burning natural gas development in the province.
Ultimately, it seems natural gas development has not gotten off the ground in Quebec due to politicians not being willing to face well-organized environmental groups who oppose natural gas development.
However, if the province does proceed with developing and using its own resources, the economic, social and environmental gains are significant.