Canadian methane emissions double official estimates?

Rating: High school and post-secondary

Summary: Markham interviews Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence about a new study showing methane emissions from oil and gas production could be double current estimates. If the study’s results apply across the industry (this will require more testing to determine), it throws into doubt Alberta’s claims about “green LNG.”

Related links:

Eight-Year Estimates of Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations in Western Canada Are Nearly Twice Those Reported in Inventories

Can Canadian ‘green LNG’ save the planet?

Markham Hislop: A new study has come out about methane emissions from Canadian natural gas production and distribution, and the numbers are not pretty. They suggest that current methane emission data is out by a factor of two. That means the methane emissions are actually twice as bad as we think they are. And that has all sorts of implications for the Canadian oil and gas industry.

To discuss this study, we’re joined by Dale Marshall from Environmental Defence. Why don’t we start with an overview of the study? Can you summarize it for us?

Dale Marshall: What the study did is it looked at four different sites in Alberta and Saskatchewan to try to come up with an estimate of what methane emissions might be from those sites. Not based on some kind of factor emissions factor from the equipment that’s there, but actually measuring the emissions that come off the land using a number of different data, often using airplane flyover methane measurements.

What researchers did was compare that data to what the official reporting is for those sites. And essentially, as you mentioned, the actual emissions are almost twice as high as the reported emissions. What the report finds is they think that a large portion of those are what they call “fugitive emissions” from these sites. Emissions from leaky oil tanks, for example. They said that quite possibly might be a major source. And those are not captured by the official data that Canada has and its national inventory on greenhouse gases.

Markham Hislop: Now this is important because governments at both the provincial levels and the federal government are committed to reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production by 40% to 45% by 2025. We should also point out that emissions data to this point has been very poor. The technology has only gotten better in the last few years and companies have not had strict regulations on actually getting out and measuring.

A lot of the past data were guesstimates. Now we’re seeing studies like this one actually go out and measure it in the air and we’re getting different numbers than what we had. So on that note, I want to provide some data for our viewers from the Canadian Energy Research Institute 2019 study on methane emissions from the Canadian natural gas supply chain. So that’s upstream in production, midstream and distribution, downstream and processing.

The number are eye-opening. So in BC where you have 5 billion cubic feet per day of production, they estimate 2.2 megatonness of emissions. In Alberta, where you have double the production, 10 billion cubic feet a day, the emissions are 24.5 megatonnes, higher by a factor of six or seven times. In, Saskatchewan, where you have 400,000 cubic feet of production today, 16 megatonnes. I mean, that’s just like off the charts.

So given that context, Dale, I think the government and the industry have a much bigger job ahead than they thought they did.

Dale Marshall: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, what we need to figure out more before we actually ensure that we meet these targets is ensure we know what the emissions are. And, you know, you talked about the CERI study, the study that just came out recently, that was put undertaken by scientists from [federal government department] Environment and Climate Change Canada.

But there have been a series of these kinds of reports that have essentially all shown the same thing: emissions are higher than official estimates. And it really doesn’t matter what the methodology is, what the geographic areas, what the kind of oil and gas facility it is. What’s in our inventory greenhouse gases underestimates the true nature of the problem. And so we really do need to come to grips with that.

When I say “we,” I mean the Canadian, Alberta, and Saskatchewan governments. We need to come to grips with exactly what the data is. Once we have a firm grip on that, that we’re pretty sure it’s always going to be an estimate, but we’re much closer to actual emissions. Then we can put into place the kinds of regulations that are going to have to be stronger to deal with those higher emissions and ensure that we’re actually meeting the targets meeting the commitments that we made to reduce emissions. As you say, by 40 to 45% by 2025.

Markham Hislop: Now here’s one of the most telling comments or responses to that study that really put it into perspective for me. And that is the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, – Canada’s largest lobby group for the hydrocarbon sector – did not dispute the study. And I think that’s very telling that this is a much worse problem than we had previously thought.

So let’s talk about emissions regulations. This is really an issue because in BC. They came up with a regulatory regime that was fairly robust and Ottawa recognized it as equivalent[to federal regulatory backstops]. They recognize it as meeting national standards for hitting climate targets.

The Kenney government in Alberta came in and put together a very set of emission regulations that were not accepted. The government federal government said Alberta had to go back to the table. And it looks like the emissions that Alberta and Canada recently agreed to are a compromise. There are kind of a middle ground, not as good as they should be. And that raises the question. Are they not then completely inadequate given the new data we have?

Dale Marshall: Well, they are inadequate and Environment Climate Change Canada knows that its own assessment of what the federal regulations will achieve in terms of emission reductions and what the provincial regulations will achieve in terms of emission reductions. Those are pretty close to each other, but all of them are too are too weak. They only will achieve 29%. This is according to their own data. They only achieve 29% reductions when the target for 2025 is 40 to 45%, which is why environment, group groups like environmental defense and others were pushing the federal government to strengthen their regulations, ask the provinces to then strengthen theirs before coming to agreements about having the provincial regulations applied. And yet we weren’t listened too. Last week The federal government signed off on those agreements. And then four days later this study comes out.

Dale Marshall: That is once again, authored by scientists who work for Environmental climate change Canada saying emissions are close to twice as high as what is we’re reporting officially. So, I mean, we really do need to be taking this issue seriously. Methane reductions are really cheap. They’re really feasible. The technologies are there. It means jobs and in an economic recovery having people on sites, looking for leaks, having people switching out equipment from high emitting to zero-emitting. All those things will create jobs. So there are lots of really good reasons to be moving forward on this more ambitiously.

Markham Hislop: Let’s tie a bow around this conversation with this point: we know that the threshold for natural gas-fired electricity to have lower-emissions coal-fired electricity is 3% methane emissions leakage. That’s the rate. So BC’s rate is 0.3%. It’s one 10th of that threshold. According to the CIRI report, Alberta is right around 3%. Now, if the Alberta rate now is double, what we previously had thought that means the leakage rate is in Alberta is now around 6% and that completely undercuts Premier Jason Kenney and the industry’s claims of creating green LNG to send off to China, to displace coal in their power plants, it would actually be worse.

And so there’s that angle has not been explored enough publicly because this has severe consequences for both federal policy, which supports LNG, and Alberta’s very, very aggressive push on the green LNG front.

Dale Marshall: That whole supply chain has been put into question in terms of the emissions that come from the production of fracked gas, the LNG, the liquefaction process required to send it overseas. Whether it is, in fact, displacing coal is another big question because China is moving very aggressively to replace coal with renewables as well.

And this obviously puts a really big question on that issue even more so, because like you say, if the emissions of methane from these kinds of operations, both the production and the transport of methane are that high and methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, as we know, almost a hundred times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. If all of that is true and the science seems to be suggesting it is, then it really does put a big question about the environmental integrity, the environmental value of turning natural gas into LNG and sending it anywhere.

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