At the Canada-U.S. bilateral talks last week President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an ambitious plan to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025.
The announcement came as welcome news to many environmental groups concerned about the high global warming potential of methane. The gas is 25 to 34 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a century.
Methane is a component of natural gas and the recent fracking boom in both Canada and the U.S. has dramatically increased methane emissions from gas production and transportation as well as fugitive emissions leaked from processing stations and pipelines.
Scott Vaughan, executive director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and former Canadian environment commissioner, said the cross-border plan to limit emissions is “really impressive.”
“The announcement, if implemented, will lead to reducing [absolute] emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector by about 20 per cent,” Vaughan told DeSmog Canada.
A recent analysis by the research firm ICF, commissioned by the Pembina Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund, found a nationwide 45 per cent reduction in methane is the equivalent to taking every passenger car off the road in both British Columbia and Alberta.
The reductions would equal the removal of 27 million metric tonnes of Canada’s carbon dioxide emissions.
The recent ICF analysis found industry could cut 45 per cent of methane emissions easily and cost-effectively by simply adopting available best practices.
The joint Canada-U.S. climate strategy indicated regulatory bodies in both countries will move as “expeditiously as possible” to develop national regulations for methane emissions. Environment and Climate Change Canada committed to releasing the initial phase of proposed regulations by early 2017.
Both countries will require industry to report on existing methane sources.
Canada currently has no national framework for reporting methane emissions from all industrial sources. Consistent underreporting of methane emissions has plagued the oil and gas industry, leading international experts to conclude regions with high volumes of fracking, such as northeastern B.C., likely have much worse climate impacts than reported.
A 2014 DeSmog Canada investigation revealed B.C.’s methane emissions are likely seven times greater than reported, meaning the CO2 equivalent of the industry is around 25 per cent higher than estimated.
The B.C. Ministry of Environment estimates 0.3 to 0.4 per cent of fugitive emissions are lost to the atmosphere during natural gas fracking, processing and transport. Recent studies in the U.S. found that figure is likely closer to the four to nine per cent range.
The high fugitive methane emissions associated with fracking has led experts to conclude natural gas is equivalent to or worse than coal as a source of energy when it comes to climate impacts.
According to Vaughan, the high climate impact of methane is what makes the Canada-U.S. collaboration on emissions so significant.
“The question of how we account for fugitive emissions is really important, and urgent,” Vaughan said. “What we really need to see now is a strong political commitment to move together jointly."
Vaughan added both Canada and the U.S. are signatories of the Paris Agreement to limit temperature increases to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible.
“Debates about ideology are over and this is a question now of arithmetic: how much can we as global community stand to emit and still hit that target?”
Andrew Gage, staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said although the plan to reduce methane emissions is significant, the overall agreement keeps the door open for continued oil and gas development.
Gage said the agreement takes what Canada and the U.S. call a “science-based approach to oil and gas” development.
“It’s interesting because science supports more or less full decarbonization by mid-century, if not sooner,” Gage told DeSmog Canada.
The agreement relies on “the idea that — if we can just regulate methane emission well enough — we can continue on with developing fossil fuels,” he said.
“I think it’s fairly clear that the trajectory of that is wrong,” Gage added.
“If we’re talking about science, it’s talking about decarbonization by 2050 at the latest and here we are ramping up and banking our economy on an industry that is completely out of alignment with that.”
Without clear plans for implementing the joint climate strategy and how meaningful methane emissions reductions will be achieved, high-level agreements such as this are mere “lipservice,” Gage said.
“The methane stuff seems to be relatively positive but… you don’t just announce a target, you lay out how you will achieve it.”
Image: Justin Trudeau
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