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Methane emissions escaping from oil and gas sites underestimated, new reports suggest

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

'There's uncontrolled methane everywhere,' says regulator

A flare stack lights the sky.
A flare stack lights the sky from the Imperial Oil refinery in Edmonton in 2018. New assessments suggest the amount of a potent greenhouse gas escaping into the atmosphere from oil and gas facilities in Canada has been significantly underestimated. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

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

A recent survey of oil and gas facilities in Canada found widespread methane releases. Satellite imagery saw giant plumes of the gas escaping landfills. And published research suggests claims of success at curtailing the gas may be partly the result of accounting changes, not actual reductions.

"There's uncontrolled methane everywhere," said Tim Doty, a former longtime senior regulator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who used an infrared camera to look for emissions at oil and gas facilities along the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary last July.

Doty, brought to Canada by the David Suzuki Foundation, surveyed 128 sites around Lloydminster, Alta., and Kindersley, Sask.

"It wasn't a problem finding emissions," he said. "It was a problem with the number of hours in a day.

"I just can't describe the magnitude of the emissions we saw."

Doty said he saw flares, used to dispose of unwanted methane from oil wells, burning off far less than the 98 per cent of the gas they are assumed to. He saw flares operating unlit, which turns them into a methane vent. He saw very few vapour recovery units, which collect fugitive gases.

Doty's familiar with 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 is using six orbiting satellites to track methane releases in real-time. Just over the last week, it has found two significant plumes from landfills in Quebec — one releasing more than a tonne of methane an hour.

That's significantly more than the official figure, based on modelling and estimates. Actual measurements are showing those estimates are lowball.

"The method of choice across the world has been estimates," said Jean-Francois Gauthier, vice-president of GHGSat. "These have been shown to be wildly inadequate."

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

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

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

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

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

A 2016 study from Carleton University using airplane overflights concluded Alberta's emissions were up to 50 per cent higher than federal estimates. In February, the International Energy Agency warned that, worldwide, about 70 per cent more methane was reaching the atmosphere than governments report.

A change in accounting

Even Canada's successes may be overstated. A peer-reviewed study last week suggested they may be at least partly the result of a change made in 2020 in how emissions are calculated.

Researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund found a dramatic drop in Alberta's emissions between 2019 and 2020 coincided with a new method of calculating them. When they applied the old method to the new data, the drop was much less.

"Does this just mean that the change in accounting has resulted in an apparent decrease?" asked co-author Scott Seymour. "That's what it appears to be."

The questions over just how much methane Canada pumps into the atmosphere come as the federal government expands regulation of the gas.

Canada is now developing regulations that would apply to all natural gas facilities, minimize use of flares, ensure those that exist work properly, increase inspection and require equipment upgrades. The new rules are to include comprehensive, consistent emission monitoring and reporting.

It can't come soon enough, said Doty.

"I don't think — and my experience tells me — that regulatory authorities have any idea of how much methane is going into the atmosphere. It's just an estimate.

"And I guarantee you, it's an underestimate."

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