Environment Canada stands by 'bizarre' joint statement on natural gas

Elizabeth McSheffrey

Environment Canada says the federal government will not alter a joint statement on clean growth and climate change which suggests that natural gas is not a fossil fuel.


The statement — an announcement on bilateral and multilateral collaboration between Canada and China — was published on Dec. 4 after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit with Li Keqiang, premier of China's state council, in Beijing. It reads, in part:

"The Ministerial Dialogue on Clean Energy will be chaired by Natural Resources Canada and the National Energy Administration of China. It will provide a forum to facilitate clean energy solutions, including the transition from fossil energy to cleaner fuels, such as nuclear, renewables and natural gas."

The ambiguous wording indicates that natural gas is an alternative to fossil fuel energy, but according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas, crude oil and coal are all considered fossil fuels, since they were "formed from the buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago."

In emailed comments, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna confirmed that natural gas is a fossil fuel, but declined to answer questions about the wording.

"While natural gas produces less carbon pollution per unit than burning coal for power, natural gas is a fossil fuel," said the spokesperson. "Canada remains fully committed to the transition to clean, renewable energy and aims to support and accelerate China’s shift to less polluting energy sources."

The representative said natural gas is "among a list of 'cleaner fuels,'" and that the joint statement would not be reworded for clarity as it has already been released.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to requests for comment on this piece.

The news comes just after McKenna helped rally 25 global governments into an agreement to phase out coal-fired power plants, and confirmed that China would not be participating in that initiative.

China, Beijing, Justin Trudeau, Catherine McKenna
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Beijing on Dec. 5, 2017. Photo courtesy of McKenna's Facebook page

Green Party leader questions 'bizarre' statement


From the perspective of climate-polluting greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas is indeed "cleaner" than other fossil fuels, said Green Party leader Elizabeth May, but to word it in such a way that implies it is not a fossil fuel is "clearly in error."

"Clearly, describing natural gas as though it's not a fossil fuel is bizarre," she told National Observerin Ottawa on Tuesday. "I understand that they may have been trying to focus on coal — coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

"Natural gas is at the other end of the spectrum, unless it's fracked. Fracked natural gas has the same carbon footprint as coal, so you can't put natural gas that's fracked as a cleaner version of coal, it's just as bad."

Fracking — the process of injecting high-pressured water mixtures deep into the earth — is often used in the extraction of liquefied natural gas (LNG). In the Canada-China joint statement, both parties said they would seek ways to expand "our energy trade (including liquefied natural gas)."

The emphasis on the LNG industry, along with the implication that natural gas is an alternative to fossil fuels, prompted a response from Dr. Courtney Howard, president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Howard was at the UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany last month as an observer, and attended meetings for the Global Health Alliance at the same time.

She said CAPE is encouraging the federal government to transition to as much renewable energy as possible, rather than emphasize natural gas as a relatively clean "interim" solution.

"That's why that wording on that statement was concerning," she told National Observer. "I think the framing needs to be really clear that natural gas is a fossil fuel and that wasn't very clear in that statement. I think [rewording it] would be a good idea because we want to see strong movement in the direction of zero-carbon energy, which is really recommended by the Lancet Countdown, which is the world's international climate change and health report card that's going to be issued every year between now and 2030."

May acknowledged it's tough to reword a joint statement between two countries "once they've left the building," but she said Canada must be clearer during future international meetings.

"Certainly in any statements coming out the G7, coming up in 2018, [or] coming out of the G20, we should draw attention to this and make sure this kind of language is not repeated," she said.