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Research shows getting tough on methane could reduce warming by 0.3 C

If Canada and other countries are serious about preventing global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 C, scientists say they should start with tougher regulations to slash methane pollution

Matt Johnson says there’s a clear starting point for governments looking to stabilize the atmosphere to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas pollution.

While decision makers often talk about the carbon dioxide emissions produced during combustion of fossil fuels, Johnson, a researcher from Carleton University, notes there is a much more powerful greenhouse gas that must not be forgotten.

“If we’re serious about net-zero, at any date, by 2050, the absolute first thing that has to go to zero is methane,” Johnson tells The Narwhal in an interview.

Johnson recently co-authored a study that found oil and gas companies, along with governments, are underestimating the amount of methane that is leaking from oil and gas production. The initial research found methane emission levels in British Columbia were 1.6 to 2.2 times higher than current federal inventory estimates. 

As his team continues to survey 8,000 sites across the country, there is mounting evidence from a range of scientific studies and assessments, including the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that indicates existing government policies are failing to adequately tackle the methane emissions that could trigger some of the worst potential outcomes of the climate crisis.

At the same time, some of the research shows how governments and industry can get ahead of the problem and achieve significant reductions in global heating, faster than similar action that is aimed at slashing CO2 pollution.

“The first step to any reduction has to be to measure it,” Johnson says. “I think the regulations we have are an important first step, but I think people would be naive to think that we aren’t going to have to go a whole lot further.”

But to succeed, some observers say governments must also counter mounting pressure and lobbying from industry stakeholders that seek to slow down action and delay new regulations.

Many oilpatch companies are also seeking billions of dollars in government subsidies to adopt greener technologies, according to Audrey Mascarenhas, president and CEO of Questor Technology Inc., a firm that helps energy companies reduce pollution.

But instead of offering handouts to oil and gas companies, she says government officials in Canada could get better results by adopting tougher regulations.

“All the major oilsands players have gone and said we need $60 billion and then we will be clean and actually our fuel is cleaner than everybody else,” Mascarenhas says. “We don’t realize that our regulations are actually — especially on emissions —  behind the United States.”

Methane regulations could reduce warming by 0.3 C

There is agreement among scientists that stronger methane regulations could have a significant impact on efforts to slow down global warming.

Climate scientists say methane is the second biggest contributor to warming temperatures. The gas is around 28 to 36 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It only lasts for about a decade, but warms the planet a lot faster in a shorter time. After a decade or so, the gas oxidizes into carbon dioxide. It’s also why it’s referred to as a “short-lived climate forcer.”

Johnson’s report, co-authored by Carleton researcher David Tyner, concludes that an “immediate reduction of methane emissions is seen as essential to holding planetary warming below a 2 C threshold.” 
In addition, a 2021 assessment of impacts of methane on climate models by the United Nations Environment Programme found that rapid reductions in methane pollution could reduce potential warming by 0.3 C by the 2040s. 

Environmental Defense Fund senior climate scientist Ilissa Ocko’s research on methane has reached similar conclusions about how regulations could help reduce anticipated warming, although not by as much as what the UNEP assessment had anticipated. Regardless, Ocko has estimated that up to 0.25 C of warming could be avoided prior to 2050 through stronger policies from all stakeholders as well as stronger regulations.

“Methane is the single fastest, available and affordable opportunity to slow down the rate of warming,” Ocko says.

National and provincial regulations with a 2025 methane reduction target of 40-45 per cent below 2012 levels came into force last year. But the latest assessment of the science from the IPCC indicates that the world is going to surpass 1.5 C in the 2030s instead of the 2040s as previously predicted, “unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”

The Trudeau government in Canada has already announced plans to strengthen its methane regulations, but has been vague about the details.

Illisa Ocko headshot
Ilissa Ocko’s research has found that better methane regulations could significantly reduce the amount of global warming expected from climate change. Photo: Leslie Von Pless

At the 26th annual United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26), beginning Oct. 31, countries will, for the first time since the signing of the Paris Agreement, present their updated plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — including methane.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said on Oct. 11 that the federal government will commit to a plan to reduce methane emissions “by at least 75 per cent below 2012 levels by 2030.” The announcement was made in support of the Global Methane Pledge Ministerial Meeting, co-chaired by the United States and the European Union.

While it declined a request for an interview, Wilkinson’s department told The Narwhal it will release a report in late 2021 on “the efficacy of the suite of federal actions to achieve the 2025 methane target.”

The most recent announcement is consistent with recommendations from IPCC’s latest report and also targets proposed by the Pembina Institute (75 per cent below 2021 levels by 2030).

The Canadian Energy Research Institute supports a slightly higher target with analysis showing the country can reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 80 per cent from 2012 levels by applying a price on carbon of less than $25 per ton.

The government currently estimates that methane accounts for 13 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s a matter of taking the current regulations and making them more stringent,” says Jan Gorski, senior analyst at the Pembina Institute.

Mascarenhas says increasing energy efficiency and reducing methane emissions is the “biggest opportunity right now that gets us 80 per cent of the way there [to limit warming].”

Flares are just one example where regulations can be strengthened, she explains. At oil and gas extraction sites, excess gas is routed through a piping system that is burned as it exits a flare stack. In the industry, flares are assumed to be 98 per cent efficient, meaning 98 per cent of the greenhouse gases that exit those pipes are assumed to be combusted. But Mascarenhas says it’s evident that’s not the case.

“It’s black and smoky — how can it be 98 per cent efficient?” she says.

Pembina’s report on existing regulations showed that federal regulations and provincial regulations in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan need major improvements on high efficiency flares and combustors, among other issues like public reporting to demonstrate compliance to regulations.

Canada’s main oil and gas industry lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, did not respond to a question from The Narwhal about whether Canada needs stronger methane regulations. Instead, its spokesman, Jay Averill, emailed a statement saying the industry is “actively working to achieve the methane emissions reductions” and added “British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan’s regulations on flaring, venting and fugitive emissions from upstream facilities” serve as models for other onshore jurisdictions.

Current regulations are also working with out-of-date data, according to Johnson, the researcher from Carleton.

“The absolute critical piece is we need a commitment to do these kinds of measurements,” he says. “We’re going to have to do that annually for at least the next five or 10 years, and probably as long as we have an oil and gas sector.”

It involves measuring methane emissions every year, updating an inventory based on measurements, not projections, and then tracking whether regulations are working, Johnson explains.

Johnson notes his research has adopted a new technology to detect and measure emissions within facilities and revealed that major methane emission sources from the oil and gas sites include tanks, compressors, flares and pneumatic devices. A tank can leak methane gas if pressurized gas is sent to it. A compressor can leak by letting the gas escape through gaps between piston cylinders. And flares can end up venting the gas directly into the atmosphere due to multiple factors like wind or inefficiency.

There is also existing technology to stop and prevent pollution from leaking.

Pneumatic devices, such as pumps and level controllers, traditionally powered by gas pressure, can be switched to “low-bleed” or “zero-bleed” where instead of being gas-powered, they’re powered by electricity, a relatively affordable solution, Johnson explains. Combusting the gas to generate power, through clean combustion units like those offered by Questor, can burn the gas instead of flaring and venting, and are among the cheapest to implement, Mascarhenas and Ocko both note.

A recent study on methane emissions found oil and gas companies, along with governments, are underestimating the amount of methane that is leaking from oil and gas production. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

But Johnson adds that tanks require a little more infrastructure and cost, like installing a vapour recovery unit. 

“As soon as you put a price on carbon of any kind, then these things start to look really cheap,” Johnson says.

“There will be some sites you decide aren’t economic, like marginal wells that are remote, producing a lot of gas and not a lot of oil,” Johnson says. “It’s a multifaceted thing, no matter what.”

Ocko believes existing technology can allow for up to a 75 per cent reduction in methane emissions in the oil and gas sector.

“In theory, if you shut off all methane emissions tomorrow, a quarter of the warming would be gone in a couple decades,” she says.

In addition to methane emission reduction being good policy, she adds there are also potential economic benefits for producers that capture and sell methane on the market.

“Because you can sell it, there’s a lot of things you can do for a no net cost; you make up the cost of fixing the leaks with the product you sell,” she says.

The oilpatch lobby group appears to agree.

“Companies also have a financial interest in these efforts as producers would much rather be selling their natural gas than losing it through the production and transportation process,” Averill, from CAPP, says. “Additional methane captured means less emissions and more product makes it to market.”

The market for natural gas is also shifting, with regions like Quebec and Europe demanding a highly regulated product that conforms to climate goals.

Earlier this year, Quebec rejected the proposed Énergie Saguenay project — an LNG export project. The province’s environment minister Benoit Charette said the project would discourage a transition toward cleaner energy sources. That was a $9 billion project, 750-km pipeline to which the province simply said ‘no.’

Last year, the French government pulled out of a US$7 billion deal with Texas-based NextDecade Corporation because the LNG project emitted too much methane at its supply origin.

“Some companies are realizing the need to address methane, both from a timing perspective but also it’s what investors and stakeholders are looking for,” Gorski says.

Some oil and gas companies are moving toward that goal.

In 2018, Shell Canada said it launched a program to reduce methane emissions by replacing old valve actuators at one of its B.C.-based sites. However, Shell Canada did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for comment on what actions the company was taking in light of the IPCC’s report and the new findings on methane detection.

Updated Nov. 1, 2021, at 11:30 a.m. ET: This article was updated to clarify a line that had overstated a summary of Ocko’s research. In fact, it was a UNEP assessment, and not Ocko, that provided an estimate about how methane regulations could reduce potential warming by 0.3 C.

Updated Oct 21, 2021, at 5:28 p.m. ET: This article was updated to clarify details describing Johnson’s research on detecting and measuring leaks.

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Hey there keener,
Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to thousands of readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

With your help, we’ll be able to do so much more in 2022. If you believe in the power of independent journalism, join our pod by becoming a Narwhal today. (P.S. Did you know we’re able to issue charitable tax receipts?)

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