With political momentum building for a liquefied natural gas export terminal in Atlantic Canada, a new coalition of environmentalists is calling on Ottawa to hit the brakes.
The new group Stop the Gas includes veterans of the battle over shale gas development in New Brunswick a decade ago.
Jim Emberger of the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance says the new push for LNG exports is about governments and gas companies trying to wring maximum profits out of an energy source destined to decline because of tougher climate change policies.
“This is just more of an initiative of a commercial nature to see if we can sell some gas while we can, because we have an excuse for it now,” Emberger said.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was in Saint John last week when she said “there is a role for the federal government” to help make an LNG export terminal happen.
She tied it directly to the need to help Europe find alternative sources of energy to Russian natural gas because of the war in Ukraine.
“I think it is a political responsibility for us as a country to support our allies with energy security,” she said.
“I think that it’s very important for Canada to step up and say ‘we’re going to help you. We’re going to help replace that energy.'”
Russia accounted for about 55 per cent of Germany’s natural gas imports in 2021.
Freeland would not comment on the possibility of Repsol’s Saint John LNG import terminal being expanded to include an export facility.
“This is not the moment to pick specific projects,” she said.
‘Possible solution’ for Europe: Higgs
But Premier Blaine Higgs and others hope the Repsol plant will be the one to advance, and that it could provide a rationale for ending the moratorium in shale gas development in New Brunswick.
Gas from New Brunswick is a “possible solution” for Europe, Higgs said in the spring. It would be less expensive than gas shipped to a Saint John terminal over long distances via pipelines.
“This is a Higgs initiative and always has been since he’s been around,” Emberger said. “He sees a chance to have a new rationale for doing it that he didn’t have before.”
Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz is scheduled to visit Canada later this month and has said his country is interested in buying more natural gas from Canada.
But Emberger is questioning the business case for a terminal that might serve the German market for only a short period.
Germany has an aggressive climate plan that includes lowering its dependence on natural gas and other fossil fuels. A large, expensive export terminal could turn into a white elephant if the European demand for gas proves short-lived, he said.
In July the International Energy Agency issued a report warning that the war in Ukraine was leading to “a considerable downward revision” of the prospects for global natural gas demand.
The report said the turmoil was damaging gas’s reputation as a reliable and affordable energy source, creating doubt about the role it was expected to play in the transition from high-emitting fuels to renewables.
“The most sustainable response to today’s global energy crisis is stronger efforts and policies to use energy more efficiently and to accelerate clean energy transitions,” said Keisuke Sadamori, the IEA’s director of energy markets and security.
Terminal could take years to build
An export terminal would likely take three to five years to get up and running, said University of New Brunswick political scientist Heather Millar, who studies climate policy.
By then, “Europe may have transitioned completely to renewables with nuclear.”
A spokesperson for the German embassy in Ottawa said no one was available for an interview about LNG exports from Atlantic Canada.
Millar believes Ottawa’s rhetoric on LNG is a political tactic aimed at oil and gas producing provinces in Western Canada.
“I see this as part of a broader aim among the Liberals to basically placate concerns around Alberta and Saskatchewan that the centre is not taking their concerns seriously,” she said.
“This is a way of signalling continued support for oil and gas while also trying to keep those provinces on board with carbon pricing and other national climate initiatives.”
Repsol hasn’t said yet whether it plans to seek approval to expand its Saint John terminal to liquefy gas for export.
Spokesperson Mike Blackier said in June the company was “continuously exploring options to maximize the value of the terminal,” including by adding liquefication and export capacity, but was not yet committed to doing it.
Blackier confirmed last week that Repsol officials met with Freeland but said the company had nothing new to add.
‘Still going to be quite a bit of opposition’
Emberger estimates that a Saint John export terminal would emit 1.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, which would make it the third-largets emitter in New Brunswick after the Irving Oil refinery and NB Power’s Belledune coal-burning plant.
That would negate “all the good things you’re doing anywhere else” to lower emissions, Emberger said.
Still, the veteran activist admits an export terminal would probably face less opposition from New Brunswickers than the lifting of the moratorium on shale gas exploration.
“They’d be more worried about you contaminating their drinking water well than they would about bad air quality in Saint John. I think that part of it is true,” he said.
“But the larger picture is it’s bad for everybody. If you know anything about climate change … I think there is still going to be quite a bit of opposition.”
Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland said an export terminal and local shale gas developing are “two separate issues,” with local fracking likely taking too long to get approved for Europe’s short-term needs.
Exporting gas “as fast as possible” probably means using existing gas supplies from the west, he said.
He also said any move on local development would need to include transparent discussions and an openness to compromise.
“Those are conversations that, speaking frankly, have perhaps been absent in the past,” he said.
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