By WENDY STUECK and MARTIN
Globe and Mail
Vancouver and Toronto — High
natural-gas prices are starting to exact an environmental cost as
companies across the country switch to dirtier energy, such as oil and
Giant greenhouses in British Columbia are making the switch, as are
Alberta cement plants and the district heating system that warms most of
Toronto's big office towers.
Natural gas, by far the cleanest of the fossil fuels and lauded by
environmentalists as the easiest way of achieving dramatic air-pollution
reductions, is proving just too expensive after huge price increases in
David Ryall, operator of an 18-acre greenhouse growing tomatoes in
Delta, B.C., said the switch was a matter of survival.
Mr. Ryall changed his three boilers to heating oil in December. This
was after his fuel bill shot up in October and November and he feared a
$700,000-a-year increase in costs from natural-gas prices that
He said he is not happy about the change: His equipment is set up to
burn natural gas and he'd prefer to use the cleaner fuel.
Mr. Ryall said he hopes to be back on natural gas by April. In the
meantime, he's considering longer-term solutions such as clean-burning
wood pellets, for example, or co-generation plants that typically use heat
generated from operations to fuel some part of the facility.
"There probably isn't a greenhouse in Western Europe that doesn't have
[a co-generation] facility with it," Mr. Ryall said.
The district heating system that serves Toronto's downtown is another
victim of the surge in natural gas prices.
This winter, Toronto's heating system will burn about 30 times as much
oil as it did last year.
Many of Toronto's large buildings, including the provincial
legislature, are heated by steam from boilers that can switch between
natural gas or oil. But the gas is delivered under contracts that are
interruptible when demand is high, and suppliers have cut the flow dozens
of times this year. Last year, that happened only once.
"We don't have any choice" but to burn oil when the supply is
interrupted, said Juri Pill, president of Enwave District Energy Ltd., the
Enwave is exploring some novel ways to reduce its dependence on natural
gas, such as using methane from municipal garbage — so-called biomass — as
a possible alternative.
Ontario Power Generation, the provincially owned electric utility,
recently completed a costly retooling of its Lennox generating station in
Eastern Ontario to burn either natural gas or oil.
But company spokesman John Earl said the plant is currently burning
only oil, although there are hopes of cheaper gas prices in the
The Lennox plant shows some of the dramatic anti-pollution potential of
natural gas. When it burns gas, emissions of smog-causing nitrogen oxides
are reduced as much as 30 per cent. Carbon dioxide, implicated in global
warming, is down as much as 20 per cent, and sulphur dioxide, a major
cause of acid rain, is virtually eliminated.
When coal is replaced by natural gas at generating stations, the
improvements are even more dramatic. Carbon dioxide emissions fall 60 per
cent; nitrogen oxides fall 90 per cent, and mercury is virtually
"Clearly, gas is the key to cleaning up our air at low cost," said Jack
Gibbons, head of Ontario Clean Air Alliance, a group lobbying for
conversion of Ontario's five coal-fired generating plants to natural
But higher gas prices are being used as an argument against the
conversion in the province, the site of the country's worst air
Though the increases have been a boon to gas producers in Western
Canada, who, thanks to new export pipelines, can finally benefit from
world prices for their product in the energy-hungry U.S. market, even
western consumers are feeling the pinch.
In Alberta, two cement makers that use natural gas are retooling to
burn coal. The switch affects the Lafarge Canada Inc. plant in Exshaw,
about 30 kilometres southeast of Banff, and an Inland Cement facility near
Cement-making is one of the world's most energy-intensive businesses.
The Exshaw plant alone burns enough natural gas annually to heat about
400,000 Calgary homes for a year.
Both plants are being driven to dirtier fuel by competitive pressures.
The Exshaw plant, for instance, would lose $50,000 to $60,000 a day at
full production because of high gas prices.
Company spokesman Gordie Miskow said the Exshaw plant has gone from
being the most cost-efficient of Lafarge's 15 cement plants to the least
efficient, all because of gas prices.
"We definitely want to use coal, and we want to be on coal by the end
of 2001 or 2002," he said.
The result: a 6-per-cent increase in carbon-dioxide emissions and a
10-per-cent jump in sulphur dioxide. Mindful of the increases, the company
has earmarked $12-million to reduce smog and particulate emissions.
Not all companies are reacting to higher prices by staying away from
gas. This month, Manitoba Hydro announced a $30-million conversion of its
Selkirk coal plant to gas.
But Manitoba Hydro undertook the switch for political reasons. The
Crown-owned utility is involved in a bitter fight with natives and U.S.
environmentalists over its exports to the United States.
The increased use of dirty fuels has not brought an immediate rise in
air pollution, in part because winter air is usually cleaner than summer
air, but environmental officials are watching the situation.
Monitoring stations for the Greater Vancouver Regional District have
not recorded any increase in emissions that lead to smog, Bob Smith, the
district's air-quality administrator, said.
Mr. Smith's department is scrambling to find out how many businesses
and institutions have switched to oil from natural gas.
Although natural gas is far cleaner than coal or oil, environmentalists
caution it is not the magic solution for eliminating air pollution.
For one thing, natural gas is a fossil fuel, and hence a greenhouse
gas, believed to cause global warming. Its production also exacts an
environmental toll from sour-gas emissions and the disruption caused by
"It's not pollution-free, and in the very long term, we want to get all
of our energy from renewable sources and better energy efficiency," said
Mr. Gibbons, the Ontario activist. But because the alternatives are far
worse, he said, moving to gas will be "a key transition fuel to a truly
In the meantime, he's hoping that higher gas prices will encourage
producers to find more natural gas, driving down prices and ultimately
encouraging more use of the fuel.
"Right now, gas is very [costly] because of the strong economy and cold
winter. Over the next few years, we expect more supply to come on line and
prices will fall dramatically," he said.