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B.C.’s Fugitive Gas Pains: Report Calls for Crackdown on Biggest Polluters

A potent, heat-trapping gas is being released into the atmosphere from B.C.’s oil and gas wells at a much higher rate than shown in industry and government reports and immediate action is needed, a new study by the David Suzuki Foundation confirms.

The findings, released Wednesday, follows on the heels of a previous peer-reviewed study by the Suzuki Foundation and St. Francis Xavier University, which found methane emissions from B.C.’s oil and gas industry are two-and-a-half times higher than reported.

The study revealed that wells in the Montney region, in northeast B.C. near Fort St. John, released more than 11,800 tonnes of methane into the air annually — the equivalent of burning 4.5 million tonnes of coal or putting two million cars on the road.

ICYMI: Scientists Find Methane Pollution from B.C.’s Oil and Gas Sector 2.5 Times What B.C. Government Reports

The new study investigated 178 sites in the same area and looked at origins and causes of the harmful emissions.

Researchers found that more than 85 per cent of actively producing gas wells vent methane gas directly into the environment every day, with an average flow rate of 27.1 cubic metres a day for each well tested. The vented gas is not being captured or flared and measurements showed it was almost pure methane.

Researchers also found that about 35 per cent of abandoned and inactive wells in the Montney region have significant flows of methane and hydrogen sulphide gas amounting to between nine and 11 cubic metres a day.

“While we could not determine the cause of these vent flows, we suspect much of the escaping gas is a result of issues related to well integrity. It is also apparent from our data that producers are identifying and repairing few of these leaking wells,” says the report.

B.C. Oil and Gas Commission figures show about 25,000 wells in B.C., with 12,771 reported as active gas wells and the remainder abandoned, suspended or used as water-disposal wells.

Venting at the inactive wells is continuous and there has been little effort to control the gas release, the report found.

Solutions exist. So why don’t we use them?

John Werring, David Suzuki Foundation senior science and policy advisor and lead researcher on the study, said there is no doubt the oil and gas industry has a problem.

“A carbon tax on these fugitive methane emissions would hold emitters accountable, forcing them to pay for their massive contributions to our overall greenhouse gas emissions or preventing them altogether,” he said.

“Every citizen in this province already pays carbon taxes to help combat climate change, so why shouldn’t the biggest polluters be required to do the same?” said Werring, who added the Foundation will be looking for announcements in next month’s provincial budget.

In the memorandum of understanding signed between the B.C. Greens and NDP, the parties committed to broaden the carbon tax to capture “fugitive” emissions.

The study also recommends that:

  • All oil and gas companies operating in B.C be ordered to immediately undertake leak detection and repair, starting with sites identified in the report.
  • The province should develop regulations for mandatory quarterly leak detection and repair on all wells, including abandoned wells.
  • Regulations be developed requiring industry to replace oil and gas powered pumps and compressors designed to vent fuel gas, with non-emitting devices.
  • Regulations be developed for mandatory and transparent reporting of emissions and steps taken to address them, with the power to demand wells be repaired.
  • Industry should be required to provide adequate resources for on-the-ground monitoring and enforcement of the measures and prioritize hiring locally affected First Nations to help with independent monitoring.

Methane emissions among most important climate problem in Canada

“These underreported methane emissions from B.C.’s oil and gas companies are among the most serious greenhouse gas problems we face in Canada, especially as our governments consider expanding the export of fracked and natural gas via the LNG industry,” said Ian Bruce, David Suzuki Foundation science and policy director.

Researchers say methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas and estimate it is responsible for 25 per cent of already observed climatic changes.

In 2016 the provincial and federal governments committed to reducing methane emissions by 45 per cent with the federal plan slated to come into effect between 2018 and 2020. But the start was pushed back to 2020 with full implementation by 2023 and regulations, now undergoing public consultations, are expected to be completed later this year.

“We are concerned that industry pressure will result in watered-down regulations when we desperately need strong leadership and strict enforcement from our federal and provincial governments,” Bruce said.

“Given how large the industry’s methane pollution footprint is, action is needed more than ever.”

Karen Tam Wu of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, said B.C. could show leadership in controlling methane emissions by improving leak detection and broadening the carbon tax to include methane leakage.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement there,” Wu said.

“Realistically, with or without LNG, natural gas will be part of B.C.’s economy and there are some real opportunities to improve our methane management in the upstream development of natural gas,” she said.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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