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Oil and gas facilities in B.C. are producing 1.6 to 2.2 times more methane pollution than current federal estimates, according to a new peer-reviewed study.
The new research, published this week in Environmental Science and Technology, concluded that existing regulations are not likely strong enough to meet government climate targets since they typically require inspections of leaking equipment with optical gas cameras that are likely failing to adequately measure methane.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that has a climate warming potential 25 times higher than carbon dioxide on a 100-year timescale. It also has no colour and it doesn’t smell, which means it’s hard to track.
“Because current policy and regulation have been developed using insights based on current inventories, these issues have serious consequences for the effectiveness of regulations and the likelihood of meeting methane reduction targets,” said the study, authored by David Tyner and Matthew Johnson, from the Energy and Emissions Research Lab at Carleton University in Ottawa.
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Using aerial surveys and laser technology, Tyner and Johnson, supported in part by the BC Oil and Gas Commission, detected significant methane emissions from sources that previous ground surveys did not pick up. Those sources, which made up more than half of all emissions, include storage tanks, compressors and unlit flares.
Overall, the aerial survey covered 167 different sites, 105 wells, 72 batteries, eight gas plants, four compressor stations and three other facilities.
“These are the sources driving upstream oil and gas methane emissions, and specifically, where emerging regulations must focus to achieve meaningful reductions,” the report noted.
The study did not identify the companies responsible for the pollution, but noted that the entire oil and gas sector was a “dominant source” of methane. The findings could also have implications for other jurisdictions, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, where studies have shown pollution is also underestimated.
As western Canada reels from a heatwave that killed hundreds and contributed to a wildfire that destroyed the town of Lytton, the urgent need to mitigate the impacts of climate change and reduce emissions is front-of-mind for many British Columbians.
In 2020, the province set a goal to reduce methane emissions by 45 per cent relative to 2014 levels by 2025, in line with similar federal targets. New regulations were implemented early that year, aimed to avoid or eliminate around 11 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year for a decade. The industry has made advances by shifting pneumatic technology to low- or zero-emitting devices, but the study highlights the discrepancy between policy and regulations that rely on ground-survey methods of tracking emissions.
Scientists and environmental organizations have been calling for further scrutiny on methane emissions for years, calling attention to unreported “fugitive emissions” associated with fracking activity. Those emissions, according to one study conducted in 2017, amount to nearly 1.5 times the amount being reported.
“It’s something that environmental and climate scientists have been saying this whole time because we know it to be true for fracking operations in other parts of the world,” Peter McCartney, climate campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, told The Narwhal in an interview. “I think the big difference with this report is that the BC Oil and Gas Commission was involved in it. It came from the group that they’ve assembled with industry and governments and nonprofit organizations to study this issue — and they need to stand behind it.”
The province’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy told The Narwhal in an emailed statement it supported the study and is working with the federal government on updating the official emissions inventory.
“Our government will consider the latest information on methane emissions as we develop our detailed roadmap to meet our 2030 emissions targets, which will be released later this year,” the statement said.
The BC Oil and Gas Commission said the aerial technique used is a first for the province and noted it contributed to both this study and a previous ground study of emissions.
“Despite the challenges outlined with comparing the two survey methods, the conclusion that emission sources are likely higher than previously reported, is consistent with findings in other recent studies,” the commission said in an email.
The report noted methane’s potency in contributing to warming and flagged that an “immediate reduction of methane emissions is seen as essential to holding planetary warming below a 2 C threshold.” Exceeding that threshold would increase extreme weather events and cause catastrophic loss of biodiversity, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Jan Gorski, senior analyst at the Pembina Institute said pinpointing the source of emissions is key to coming up with solutions. Gorski is a member of the BC Oil and Gas Methane Emissions Research Collaborative, a collaboration between the government, industry and environmental nonprofits, which commissioned the study in 2019.
“We just don’t know that much about many sources of emissions, and all of them have solutions,” he said. “Whether it’s a fugitive [emission] or it’s from a storage tank, there are solutions available.”
He added the province will need to adjust its policies and regulations but noted the solutions are cost-effective.
“Fortunately, the timing was good as B.C. is going into a regulatory review of its regulations in 2022,” he added. “It’s really important we ensure that we get it right, and if we’re not on track to meet our methane reduction targets, which the numbers currently show, that we correct course.”
Gorski also noted it’s in the best interest of extraction companies to act on the data to achieve social licence.
“Consumers and investors are becoming more and more aware of environmental and social performance of industry,” he said.
Currently under construction in Kitimat, natural gas liquefaction and export facility LNG Canada is scheduled to come online in 2025, at which point it will receive up to 2.1 billion cubic feet per day of fracked gas through the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The projected increase in natural gas extraction activity needed to supply the facility would increase B.C.’s methane emissions correspondingly, effectively rendering provincial reduction targets impossible.
“LNG Canada is being marketed as the cleanest LNG in the world — that is all up in the air now,” McCartney said. He explained that if B.C. intends to meet its targets when the project begins operations, the industry would have to figure out how to extract the gas without producing any methane emissions. “Nobody has figured out how to do that.”
Gorski said he’s hopeful this study charts a path forward by combining new technology with ground surveys to help regulators and industry tackle the problem of methane emissions before new projects come online. He said when the new regulations were implemented in 2020, industry was able to make simple changes to significantly reduce emissions.
“You have these devices on site that are basically valves and actuators and they’re powered by gas, and they’re designed to vent gas,” he said. “This was designed at a time when we didn’t see gas and methane as a problem. Now that we know it’s a big deal there are alternative versions of these technologies that are either powered by air or powered by solar. That’s a big opportunity to reduce emissions that has been deployed.”
He said the results of the new study, and the technology used to compile the data, can be used to make necessary changes in line with the actual emissions produced by the sector.
“The technology that was used in this particular study is quite good. It can tell you the exact source where the emissions are coming from, but you’re still going to need someone to go onto the facility on the ground, pinpoint the exact source of the leak and try and fix it.”
He stressed the importance of tackling the problem quickly.
“Methane only stays in the atmosphere for a decade, so it has a very short, powerful impact. It impacts how fast global warming happens. If emissions are higher than what we expected, there’s a chance that methane could really upend our climate goals and B.C. is already not on track to meet its 2030 targets.”
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