BC Ferries has made a big promise. To operate the environmentally cleanest possible ferries. In the words of BC Ferries’ President and CEO, Mark Collins, “It is our privilege to operate in one of the most pristine environments in the world and it is our objective to be a leader in environmental and social governance”.
That promise is in black and white in the BC Ferries’ Clean Futures Plan, Summer 2019. But the promise and the prescribed actions don’t add up.
The Clean Futures Plan objective is to reduce GHG emissions by “continually seeking among available energy sources the cleanest, lowest carbon-intensity option that can displace non-renewable diesel”. And by that they mean liquefied natural gas (LNG).
But LNG fueled ferries result in little or no net GHG reduction.
To make the claim that “we currently have five LNG-fueled vessels in our fleet that substantially outperform diesel fueled vessels for emissions and costs” the Plan relies on a common deception that natural gas (aka fracked gas, LNG or methane) is a “clean” fossil fuel because it releases less CO2 than other fossil fuels at point of burning.
While LNG does burn cleaner than fossil fuel there are other factors that have to be considered.
The most recent research shows that LNG ferries have no climate benefit over ferries using marine diesel fuel. In fact, they are slightly worse. Mark Collins, BC Ferries CEO, states in the BC Ferries Authority’s 2018-19 Annual Report, “We have expanded the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which emits significantly lower GHGs compared to ultra low-sulphur diesel.” It would be more accurate to say that LNG is cheaper than diesel, promoted by the Province of BC and has a reputation burnished by decades of industry disinformation.
The myth of methane as a clean fossil fuel rests on several untruths. First, it counts only CO2 at point of burning, not methane itself (CH4), an extremely potent GHG.
And then there is this: methane leaks at every stage of natural gas production, storage and use. Methane is known to leak from marine engines in particular, a thing called "methane slip".
This infrared camera of Texas gas fields shows the potential intensity of invisible methane leaks. It’s hard to measure the escape of an invisible gas but, where careful monitoring has occurred, research established years ago that natural gas is a dead end for climate stability. Methane gas is 85 times more potent than CO2 in the short term.
LNG fueled ferries result in little or no net greenhouse gas reduction. But that hasn't stopped @BCFerries from buying them.
And in the world of GHG emissions “short term” is defined as 20 years. That short term just happens to encompass the (now) eleven year timeframe in which we will prevent - or trigger - the runaway feedback loops that threaten the fate of Earth.
BC Ferries has acquired five LNG-fueled vessels. That’s thanks to hundreds of millions of BC taxpayer dollars and the $16 million dollars chipped in by FortisBC, a subsidiary of Canada’s largest private utility company, Fortis Inc. The Fortis deal locks BC Ferries into a ten-year contract for LNG fuel with the electric and natural gas distribution utility,
The BC Liberals in 2012 put their thumb on the LNG ferry scale by passing a Greenhouse Gas Reduction (Clean Energy) Regulation which allows a utility (such as FortisBC) to make grants of up to $6 million to other entities toward the purchase of a natural gas vehicle (such as a ferry). Grantors can favor a person whose machine uses natural gas from the utility’s pipelines. The NDP is completely bought in to the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.
Which helps explain how and why FortisBC funded BC Ferries to a total of $10 million for infrastructure for the new LNG ferries and locked it into a contract to buy 13 million gigajoules of LNG. Doug Stout, FortisBC’s vice president of market development and external relations, celebrated the deal with the unsupported claim: “This abundant, made-in-BC energy source can reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 15 to 25%...."
BC Ferries and the methane slip
The fundamental problem of LNG as a fuel for ferries is "methane slip" - the escape of unburned methane escapes from ferry engines. According to a report from UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre, the engine model used by BC Ferries’ new LNG ferries doesn’t reliably reduce GHG emissions at all and, in fact, increases GHG emissions when production emissions are included. And that increase isn’t insignificant - from two to seven percent compared to a medium or high speed diesel engine. UBC’s result confirms earlier studies and findings by other scientists.
LNG has benefits. It can reduce oxides of sulphur and nitrogen and particulates (although running engines for reduction can result in more GHGs). It can cost less than marine diesel. It has political support. But it isn’t a climate solution. It’s not even a climate solution for ocean-going vessels on long runs because its climate benefits are so minimal and because running LNG engines for low emissions comes at a much higher operational cost.
Upstream emissions and BC Ferries
LNG’s climate damage begins during production, "upstream" of the methane slip from marine engines. Methane, being lighter than air, can float away at every point between extraction and delivery in the form of fugitive emissions. It’s hard to measure the escape of an invisible gas. BC’s estimates are far out of line with those where data has been gathered from “the top down” (atmospheric concentrations in operational areas rather than estimates based on the industry’s inventories). Years ago, research established that natural gas is a dead end for climate stability in those locations where careful monitoring has occurred.
In a recent BC study, the discrepancy between industry reports and measured emissions was 30%. Based on field measurements, the David Suzuki Foundation found that 35% of inactive wells and 85% of active wells in one part of Northern BC are leaking methane. A leaked Oil and Gas Commission document showed that nearly 50 of fracked gas wells, the process of using high-pressure water drilling to release gas inside rock, were leaking methane and that up to 900 gas wells in BC could be leaking. (This estimate applies only to one portion of northeast BC where fracking companies operate.) Another escape route for methane is the venting required to maintain storage tank pressure.
Worldwide, the climate impact of this escaped methane is minimized because the International Panel on Climate Change and the Province of BC attribute a warming factor of 25 to methane for climate reporting. That number, the global warming potential (GWP) for methane, means that methane is 25 times more warming than CO2 when it is in the atmosphere. But methane's GWP of 25 averages the warming effect of this gas over a century time frame even though methane has a much greater warming potential during the first twenty years after release - 85 times more warming than CO2. The UN warns that in the next eleven years in we will either sharply swerve away from the runaway emissions loops that will entirely change life on Earth - or trigger them. For this reason, a GWP of 85 for methane most precisely reflects the impact of methane on climate outcomes. But whether 25 or 85 is used to determine methane's global warming potential, LNG developments are going to render impossible the goals of the CleanBC Climate Plan. Methane escape is the reason why, worldwide, natural gas is being rejected as a climate solution.
Invisible facts and BC Ferries publications
BC Ferries doesn’t quantify or even mention methane slip in its Clean Futures Plan, website or annual reports. In response to an email inquiry, it did not explain, admit or deny the problem. It referred me back to the Plan. It’s website uses LNG trucks for comparison purposes rather than marine engines. While LNG trucks have their own overstated claims, they do not have methane slip. The LNG engines purchased by BC Ferries, 34DF Wartsila engines, do have methane slip. BC Ferries’ claim of “important climate progress” appears to rely on ignoring methane slip. If so, LNG ferries are a huge investment in climate failing infrastructure
Governments and businesses track their changes from a baseline year in which they inventory their year's emissions. Problematically, BC Ferries won’t publish its first baseline inventory until 2021 while BC and Canada climate targets use 2005 and 2007 respectively as climate baseline years. Using 2021 will make it difficult to compare BC Ferries' claimed reductions with the Province's goals. At a minimum, BC Ferries should publish past ship fuel usage for each year since the 2005/2007 climate baseline years to allow others to make the necessary calculations.
Who made these decisions? Organizational responsibility within BC Ferries' labyrinthine administration makes this hard to pin down. In 2002, the Liberals took an indebted Crown Corporation and transformed it into a private company which could solicit private investments. BC Ferries Services Inc. is owned by the BC Ferry Authority, which holds the single voting share and appoints its Board of Directors. The BC government holds all the preferred shares of BC Ferries Services Inc. According to Clare Trevena, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, her Ministry has no authority to direct the decisions of BC Ferries Services.
The BC Ferry Commission, an independent regulator, is tasked with protecting the public interest. For the most part, this means keeping fares down. The Commission’s mandate has recently expanded to include reducing GHG emissions under a Section of the Coastal Ferry Act which states that ferry operators are to be “encouraged” to meet provincial greenhouse gas emission targets. The Commission has veto power over capital expenditures of over $50 million for vessels and $25 million for other infrastructure. But, according to Commissioner Eva Hage, this veto power does not mean the Commission can direct what a capital project can be. This is too bad, given that BC Ferries has invested close to $400 million in vessel technology in the last five years, much of it for climate-destabilizing LNG ferries.
So, who to ask about the problem of methane slip and why it doesn’t appear in any of the BC Ferries public reports and literature?
The Coastal Ferries Act authorizes the Commission to inspect a report which is incomplete or incorrect. When I reached out for answers, Commissioner Hage suggested that I direct questions to BC Ferries Service Inc. regarding methane slip, upstream LNG emissions and GHG accounting. BC Ferries Services referred me back to its Clean Futures Plan, an incomplete and incorrect report with regard to methane slip, upstream methane emissions and GHG emissions, matters within the purview of the Commission. So, no answers, no clear accountability.
In a CBC interview, Minister Trevena noted that BC Ferries Services is on track to replicate the vessel services of the last 50 years even thought the future needs of coastal communities are likely to be quite different. In visioning meetings through the winter, she will encourage stakeholders to re-imagine the whole system. What about passenger ferries? Electric ferries? Different routes? Ferries integrated into other forms of transportation? How do we get from A to B with the lowest emissions possible? What if there was seamless public transport between Campbell River and Hope?
According to a statement from Minister Trevena's, the results of her stakeholer consultation will be advisory: “…to provide information to help guide all parties involved in transportation planning, including the BC Ferries Commissioner, and BC Ferries shareholder, the BC Ferry Authority.”
Electric BC Ferries
Meanwhile, BC Ferries has the capacity to service the majority of its runs with electric ferries. It's infrastructure funding could be better used to convert short run ferries to electricity. CEO Mark Collins seems behind this curve with statements such as, "There is no standard way of connecting the ship to grid," and "You're talking a lot of electricity and you're around saltwater which is conductive so you've got to be very careful." By contrast, Max von Ruden, director of vessel engineering and maintenance for the Washington State Department of Transportation Ferries Division, has stated, "This is not new or high-risk technology.” Washington State plans to have plug in capability at every port by 2023.
The range for electric ferries is now 22 nautical miles, thanks to Denmark’s new E-Ferry Ellen. Norway is adding 60 electric ferries to its fleet over the next three years. Ironically, many of them will be powered by batteries manufactured by a company founded in BC. Electric ferries run in many countries, including Canada, China, Iceland, US and Sweden.
By 2022, BC Ferries plans to operate 6 “electric ready” ferries with hybrid diesel engines but does not plan to use onshore charging until some time in the future. This is unreasonable delay. In Scandinavia, ferries are rapidly being switched over to electricity. According to industry analysts, even a weak grid can charge batteries overnight. For example, Denmark’s E-Ferry Ellen gets fully charged overnight and topped up through the day at its home harbor in the time it takes cars to load and unload.
And it's cost effective. The E-Ferry Ellen cost approximately 40% more than traditional vessels but fuel costs are anticipated to be 40% less. According to Siemens, on average an electric vessel will pay for itself in five and a half years. After that, it increases profitability. Another recent study puts the payback period for an electric ferry at under 7 years with operational savings of 51.3% over the diesel-electric alternative. The Pacific Northwest’s reliance on cheap hydro power improves the case.
Someday, BC ferries and hydrogen
There’s still the problem of long runs which require molecular fuel - something you can put in the tank. So far, hydrogen is the most likely zero carbon solution for industries which require a supply of energy far from the electrical grid. To make hydrogen fuel, renewable energy which would other be spilled is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Zero carbon hydrogen fuel (not to be confused with hydrogen fuel made from LNG) can be used for long range marine transport. Biofuels also show potential, but finding adequate supplies from sustainable non-food sources would be a challenge.
According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, hydrogen is the inevitable solution for “hard-to-abate” industry sectors (responsible for 40 percent of GHGs) where clean molecular energy can work in coordination with batteries. In plans to decarbonize marine industries enough to meet the Paris Accord, the Energy Transitions Commission relies on fuel cells using hydrogen and ammonia as fuel. It warns against overinvestment in LNG infrastructure because LNG cannot deliver complete decarbonization of shipping. Shell and the International Energy Agency also rely on hydrogen for decarbonizing the hard-to-abate sectors.
BC Ferries needs a plan based on data, not on gas industry disinformation. Rather than spend more taxpayer dollars on climate-harming LNG, BC Ferries could keep pace with other jurisdictions which are electrifying their ferries. In the longer term, hydrogen promises to be a truly zero carbon molecular fuel. It won't be a long wait: it will be implemented in Norway by 2021. Scotland is assessing its feasibility as well.
But it seems BC Ferries isn’t going to let scientific fact get in the way of LNG ferry expansion. Four more LNG ferries are under consideration.
To its credit, BC Ferries has implemented efficiencies such as low friction coatings to reduce hull resistance and modifications to hulls, rudders and propellers. In the MV Tanaka, braking charges batteries that power the thrusters. It has the world’s longest cable ferry. And it acknowledges the future for most of its ferries is electric.
The promotion of LNG as a climate solution by industry, and the embrace of LNG by governments, is a form of predatory delay: these institutions don't deny the need for change but they claim it is more prudent to invest a "cleaner" fossil fuel. But the research is in: LNG is more destructive to the climate than current marine fuels. This predatory delay has trickled down to BC Ferries' infrastructure decisions, causing it to prioritize LNG long-run ferries over electrification of short-run ferries. This is cheap in the short term but will require an expensive retool should BC Ferries get serious about climate mitigation. When tax money and ferry fares go to infrastructure which locks in climate damage, we all fund the remedy or suffer the consequences. The Province of BC needs to get real about carbon mitigation and stop promoting LNG, a known climate-failing fuel. If we sincerely want to beat climate change, the moment for on-shore charged electric ferries is now.