Heckled and booed off the stage at a series of public meetings earlier this month, Quebec's salesman-in-chief for a novel energy development withdrew from the fight this week -- citing the advice of worried doctors but vowing to rejoin the fight. The inspiration for André Caillé's intemperate welcome was not a coal-fired power plant or a pipeline full of heavy oil from Alberta's tarsands, but what until recently was considered the green fossil fuel: methane.
Natural gas -- that clean-burning stuff that delivers megajoules of energy with one-half the carbon content of coal, and which even Californians seem to accept as a transition fuel for a carbon-constrained world. Problem is that Quebec has low-carbon hydropower in abundance, and it's expanding into wind power, so fossil fuel development of any kind feels like a step in the wrong direction. Plus, in the Northeast, natural gas is increasingly lumped in with coal and petroleum as yet another environmental miscreant.
Methane's image has slid with the development of shale gas -- gaz de schiste to the Quebecois -- whereby methane is driven from the rock or schiste with aggressive chemical treatments and high-pressure water blasts. Quebec farmers and environmentalists told M. Caillé that, “We don’t want your gaz de shit!” because they fear that such 'fracking' will bring the groundwater contamination that's fueled controversy in Pennsylvania and inspired shale gas controls in New York.
Methane's image problems could shift westward too, and not only because shale gas development is being applied there too. Western producers of conventional gas deposits are working their way into bottom-of-the-barrel gas deposits that contain large amounts of CO2. A few years ago I interviewed Bill Townsend, CEO for Salt Lake City-based carbon capture project developer Blue Source, who predicted that Americans were due to be "stunned" by the "massive reserves" of high-CO2 natural gas coming onstream.
Townsend saw the relatively easy-to-capture CO2 from gas treatment as low-hanging fruit for carbon sequestration in the West. But he said the problem would be too big for sequestration, leaving plenty of rotting fruit unpicked and thus emissions uncontrolled. "It is going to be a huge problem," Townsend told me.
Given the trend lines, Quebecers may be right to reject natural gas.
Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.