Methane emissions escaping from oil and gas sites are underestimated, according to new reports

As the federal government moves to tighten regulations on methane emissions, new assessments suggest the amount of potent greenhouse gas escaping into the atmosphere has been significantly underestimated.

A recent survey of oil and gas facilities in Canada revealed widespread methane releases. Satellite imagery has seen giant plumes of gas rising from landfills. And published research suggests that claims of gas-cutting success may be partly the result of accounting changes, not actual cuts.

« There’s unchecked methane everywhere, » said Tim Doty, a former longtime senior regulator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who used an infrared camera to track emissions at oil and gas facilities along the border. Alberta-Saskatchewan last July.

Doty, brought to Canada by the David Suzuki Foundation, inspected 128 sites around Lloydminster, Alberta, and Kindersley, Saskatchewan.

“It was no problem finding shows,” he said. “It was a problem with the number of hours in a day.

« I just can’t describe the magnitude of the shows we’ve seen. »

Doty said he has seen flares, used to remove unwanted methane from oil wells, burning far less than the 98% of the gas they are supposed to consume. He has seen flares run without igniting, turning them into a methane vent. He saw very few vapor recovery units, which collect fugitive gases.

Doty is familiar with the Texas Permian Basin, which he calls « the worst » for methane release.

« I wouldn’t say what I saw in Canada was much better, » he said.

A Montreal company called GHGSat uses six orbiting satellites to track methane releases in real time. Just over the past week, he found two large plumes from landfills in Quebec – one releasing more than a tonne of methane per hour.

This is significantly higher than the official figure, based on modeling and estimates. Actual measurements show that these estimates are low.

« The method of choice around the world has been estimates, » said Jean-Francois Gauthier, vice president of GHGSat. “These turned out to be extremely inadequate.

Elisabeth Besson, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the industry was on track to reduce methane emissions by 45% by 2025. She said emissions intensity had been reduced by a third between 2011 and 2019.

She said tank vents, pneumatics and pumps are being improved and venting and flaring are reduced.

« CAPP and its members have made reducing emissions a priority and will continue to invest in innovation, » she wrote in an email.

Still, production volumes have increased. Data from the European Union shows that Canada is the only G7 country where methane emissions have increased since 1990, although the rate of increase is slowing.

Other studies suggest that methane, 83 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years, is underestimated.

A 2016 study from Carleton University using aircraft overflights concluded that Alberta emissions were up to 50% higher than federal estimates. In February, the International Energy Agency warned that around the world about 70% more methane was reaching the atmosphere than governments were reporting.

A change in accounting

Even Canada’s successes can be overstated. A peer-reviewed study last week suggested they could be at least partly the result of a change made in 2020 to the way emissions are calculated.

Environmental Defense Fund researchers found that a dramatic drop in Alberta emissions between 2019 and 2020 coincided with a new calculation method. When they applied the old method to the new data, the drop was much less.

« Does that just mean that the accounting change has resulted in an apparent decrease? » asked co-writer Scott Seymour. « That’s what it seems. »

Questions about how much methane Canada is pumping into the atmosphere come as the federal government expands gas regulations.

Canada is currently developing regulations that would apply to all natural gas facilities, minimize the use of flare stacks, ensure existing ones are functioning properly, increase inspections and require equipment upgrades. The new rules must include comprehensive and consistent emissions monitoring and reporting.

It can’t happen soon enough, Doty said.

« I don’t think – and my experience tells me this – that the regulatory authorities have any idea how much methane ends up in the atmosphere. It’s just an estimate.

« And I guarantee you that’s an understatement. »


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