Burn, Baby Burn

Feel like you’re doing your part for climate change? Changed your light bulbs? Riding your bike? Like many British Columbians, you are probably pitching in to try to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

Now if we could only get the natural-gas industry to stop dumping 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year due to gas flaring, we might be getting somewhere.

It is a little-known fact that the B.C. sector of this industry “flares”, or needlessly burns off, about 960 million cubic metres of natural gas every year. That remarkable waste of finite and relatively clean fuel is enough to heat more than 300,000 Canadian homes annually.

According to Steve Simons, corporate-affairs director of B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission, B.C. flares about 2.9 percent of annual production, which in 2007 was about 33.1 billion cubic metres of gas.

That means the B.C. gas industry flares almost one billion cubic metres of gas annually, producing about 1.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is approximately 2.8 percent of the total carbon emissions for the entire province.

Although British Columbia did manage to reduce flaring by 11 percent between 1996 and 2006, across its eastern border the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board managed to reduce gas flaring by 72 percent between 1996 and 2004.

So why do companies burn off the very resource they are drilling for? According to Lee Shanks, spokesperson for the Oil and Gas Commission, companies flare gas mainly to release pressure in their systems. “It’s sort of like a tea kettle; it’s to let the pressure off.” Gas is also flared during well testing and maintenance.

Shanks pointed out that the commission has just released new guidelines aiming to reduce gas flaring by 50 percent by 2011. The B.C. government also committed in the 2007 throne speech to eliminating gas flaring by 2016. However, the fact that Victoria made that commitment indicates that this type of waste is entirely avoidable.

Worldwide, this wasteful practice remains a huge problem. According to the World Bank, about 100 billion cubic metres of natural gas are burned off or vented every year—the equivalent of all the annual gas consumption in England, France, and Germany combined. It is also an enormous waste of money. Gas flaring squanders about $31 billion in natural gas annually.

Here in B.C., wasted gas was worth almost $300 million in 2007. The B.C. government would also have collected more than $49 million in additional gas royalties had that
public resource not been squandered or if royalties were charged on gas flaring. Even under the new guidelines to reduce flaring, royalties are not charged for wasted gas.

We should also not forget the human-health impacts of burning off unwanted and often unrefined gas in the atmosphere. Incomplete combustion from flaring can release many known carcinogens, such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a September 2007 report on this issue called Foot Off the Gas: Regulating B.C.’s Oil and Gas Industry As If the Environment Mattered.

According to its author (and occasional Straight contributor), Ben Parfitt, flaring is symptomatic of a wasteful industry mindset fostered by a long history of government subsidies to encourage growth. B.C. gas production has increased by more than 40 percent during the past 10 years, a pace he feels cannot be maintained.

“We need to be very focused on the fact that the resource being exploited is finite, that it might only have a shelf life of only 17 years or so if we see a doubling of gas production,” Parfitt said in an interview. “Therefore we need to be doing everything we can to ensure that we get fair dollar value for the gas being pulled from the ground and that we don’t waste it.”

Parfitt and the CCPA feel that immediately charging industry a royalty on every unit of gas that is flared would be a step in the right direction. “That would send a message right away to industry that they need to find a way to end those practices,” Parfitt said.

Ending subsidies to this already lucrative industry would be another positive move. Every year, the B.C. taxpayers shovel about $260 million to the oil-and-gas sector. Much of this largess is to encourage questionable practices, such as developing marginal deposits or drilling muskeg-damaging wells in the summer when the ground is not frozen.

Is Victoria moving to reduce these subsidies? No. In fact, in the most recent budget, they are slated to increase by 24 percent in 2008-09, to $327 million.

Although the government should be commended for significant changes, such as introducing a carbon tax, their continued coddling of the natural-gas sector only undermines efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. We should note that the carbon tax is a retail tax that only applies to you and me. Flared gas is not taxed for carbon emissions. Neither is the entire industry.

To put this issue in perspective, lets have a closer look at the total carbon emissions resulting from gas flaring in BC. 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 is quite a bit. What would the rest of us have to do to pick up the slack for the BC gas sector needlessly wasting all that gas? I did that math for you. The options are endless.

- We would have to replace approximately forty million conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescents.

- 1.2 million people would have to quit eating meat and become vegans.

= 440,000 people would have to give up their cars.

= 20 million additional people could take up recycling.

- 8 million households could wash their clothes only in cold water.

- 13 million households would have to switch to low flow showerheads.

Rather than go to all that trouble, maybe it would be simpler to bring in meaningful regulation to force gas companies to stop squandering a public resource, and using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for CO2.

This piece was pubished in the Georgia Straight on June 5, 2008

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