Methane emissions

An invisible climate killer is lurking behind B.C.’s LNG boom

By Matt Simmons, The Narwhal, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Invisible to the naked eye, undetectable by smell and 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide for its  short-term warming impact on the climate, methane is explosive, toxic  and can make helicopters fall out of the sky. It’s like something out of a superhero movie — or a bad dream.

About half of Canada’s reported methane emissions  are produced by the oil and gas industry, both from regular operations  and leaks. But much of the climate damage caused by the sector’s methane  pollution goes undetected due to weak regulations.

As the country’s westernmost province prepares for a boom in the gas sector, with LNG Canada and the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline set to start operations mid-decade, B.C. is planning to increase oversight.

During the international climate conference in Egypt last November, Canada proposed a new regulatory framework  on methane aimed at driving “as many individual sources as possible  toward zero emissions” and expanding its scope to eliminate any  exemptions the sector was benefitting from.

Ari Pottens, Canadian campaign manager with the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund, said the federal  framework is promising and sets a benchmark for B.C. regulations. The  province will have to follow the federal regulations or sign what’s  called an equivalency agreement with the federal government, he  explained. The closer the respective regulations are to each other, the  easier they are to enforce.

“We think that any provincial regs should  match the ambition found in this proposed framework,” he said in an  interview. “It’s close to some of the best practices that we’ve seen in  the U.S.”

The federal proposal includes increasing inspections of facilities, including wells that aren’t in operation, and requiring all operators to have a plan for how they’re going to deal with fugitive emissions, or leaks.

In 2021, B.C. committed to cut methane emissions  by 75 per cent below 2014 levels by 2030 and nearly eliminate them by  2035. To tackle the challenge, the B.C. Energy Regulator (formerly known  as the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission) is currently asking for feedback to inform the process. 

“Right now, in B.C. you only have to do a  comprehensive inspection of facilities three times a year, but the new  federal regulations are much more stringent,” Pottens said. “One of the  things that would make sense would be to increase the level of [B.C.’s]  inspection requirements, so that it more closely mirrors what the  federal government has proposed.”

What you don’t know won’t kill you — or will it?

One of the biggest challenges facing the  sector is the “rapid detection and elimination of fugitive emissions,”  the B.C. Energy Regulator told The Narwhal.

Remember, methane is invisible. And the  majority of gas extraction and transport in B.C. takes place in the  province’s northeast, a sparsely populated and remote region.  

In 2021, Matthew Johnson and David Tyner,  researchers with the Energy and Emissions Research Lab at Carleton  University in Ottawa, found that B.C. oil and gas facilities were emitting up to 2.2 times more methane than federal estimates.

“Over the time since we’ve started to deal  with methane, our ability to detect and measure it has vastly  improved,” Tom Green, senior climate policy advisor with the David  Suzuki Foundation, told The Narwhal in an interview. But much of the  province’s accounting of methane emissions still relies on assumptions,  rather than actual measurement and Green said implementing “large scale  independent monitoring” would ensure B.C. has an accurate picture of the  problem.

Pottens said industry compliance is a major issue. 

2022 report by St. Francis University researchers on behalf of the Methane Emissions Research Collaborative  noted only 60 per cent of operators completed leak detection and repair  surveys in 2020. And when operators did complete the surveys and found  problems, many took longer than 30 days to plug the holes.

“If you have a leak, 40 per cent of the  time it’s not being repaired in the correct way or in a timely manner,”  Pottens said. “Tightening up the regulations to try to strengthen  compliance when there needs to be a repair, when a leak is found, seems  like a no-brainer.”

Satellite technology could be a  game-changer. The Carleton study showed there was a big gap between  detection methods on the ground and flyover surveys. But regular aerial  surveys in northeast B.C. are expensive and impractical. Satellites not  only drop a pin on major industrial sources of fugitive emissions, they  can also determine the rate of the leak, prioritizing the biggest  polluters and keeping emissions accounting accurate. 

“In order to understand and quantify  B.C.’s industrial emissions, B.C. is using a range of tools, including  aerial detection, land-based detection and surveys and satellites,” the  regulator’s spokesperson said. “The province, through the Ministry of  Environment and Climate Change Strategy, has a contract in place to  detect methane emissions by satellite at oil and gas facilities, coal  mines and landfills.”

The ministry confirmed its contract is with Montreal-based GHGSat, which already has six methane-detecting satellites orbiting the planet. MethaneSat,  a collaboration between the Environmental Defense Fund and the New  Zealand Space Agency, aims to launch its first later this year.

“British Columbia continues to lead the  country in methane emissions reduction and we are on track to exceed the  targets we set in 2018 to reduce emissions by 45 per cent by 2025,”  Josie Osborne, Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, told  The Narwhal in an emailed statement. Osborne’s ministry said the  province is working with experts, industry, non-profits and  environmental groups to make sure emissions aren’t being missed in the accounting. 

‘A classic boom and bust’

Regulations alone may not be enough to  catch and curb emissions as more projects come online. The province has  delayed a decision about whether it will green-light Cedar LNG,  a majority Haisla-owned project proposed for Kitimat, B.C. The  government was supposed to make a decision by the end of 2022 but has  said it is taking extra time to “thoroughly review” the project. B.C.  already gave the thumbs up to Woodfibre LNG in Squamish, B.C. in 2015. The province also approved three other gas pipelines in the north: Prince Rupert Gas Transmission, owned by TC Energy, the same company behind Coastal GasLink, and two Enbridge projects, Westcoast Connector and Pacific Trails.

“The province really needs to be doing  everything as fast as possible to reduce methane emissions, while also  abandoning its plans to expand fracking and gas transportation that  leads to these methane emissions,” Peter McCartney, climate campaigner  with the Wilderness Committee, said in an interview.

The B.C. regulator said regulatory changes  will apply to liquefaction facilities, including LNG Canada, pipelines  and all upstream facilities. 

But McCartney worries the math won’t add up as new wells are drilled and projects come online. 

“There’s sort of a twofold piece on it,”  he said. “Yes, patch the holes, fix the pumps and incomplete combustion  at flare stacks — all these various ways that they’re looking at  reducing methane emissions. But if they’re only pulling more of this  stuff out of the ground, more of it is going to end up in the atmosphere  all along the supply chain.”

Public appetite for new LNG projects is declining, according to a recent Clean Energy Canada survey. The study, conducted in February, found a majority of British  Columbians would rather see the provincial government direct its  investments and support to clean energy projects.

Green said that new and stricter  regulations are important and B.C. should be doing everything it can to  get emissions down as quickly as possible but the province also needs to  think longer term and pivot towards clean energy opportunities in  partnership with Indigenous nations. 

“We’re going through a classic boom and  bust,” he said. “I get that people are benefiting from all the jobs that  are up in the northeast of the province and in Kitimat, building LNG  Canada — those are real well-paying jobs. But we’ve got to also think of  the long run and start that transition, or start a rational build-out  of what the economy of the future is.” 

Cutting methane emissions is inexpensive and has big benefits for climate 

Domestic responsibility for methane is part of an international effort. According to the Global Methane Assessment,  a 2021 report published by Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the  United Nations Environment Programme, cutting global emissions by 45 per  cent would save the planet from around 0.3 C of warming by the 2040s  and annually prevent “255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related  hospital visits, 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat and  26 million tonnes of crop losses globally.”

Green calls methane a “low-hanging fruit” partly because industry has a baked-in incentive to prevent leaks.

“By capturing that methane and putting it  in the pipe, they do get to sell it,” he explained, referring to  International Energy Agency analysis that shows 40 per cent of emissions can be cut using existing technologies at no net cost to companies. 

Green added there are additional economic  benefits associated with reducing the frequency of costly climate  disasters. “It’s a moral case as well,” he said. “Companies shouldn’t be  using the atmosphere as a dumping ground for a climate accelerant.”

According to Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the  United Nations Environment Programme, executive  director of the International Energy Agency, “methane cuts are among the  cheapest options to limit near-term global warming.” 

“There is just no excuse,” Birol said in a February press release.  “The Nord Stream pipeline explosion last year released a huge amount of  methane into the atmosphere. But normal oil and gas operations around  the world release the same amount of methane as the Nord Stream  explosion every single day.”

“Fossil fuel producers need to step up and policy makers need to step in — and both must do so quickly.”

B.C. appears to be getting a head start by launching its regulatory review. The federal government has not yet  published new standards, but the province is gathering technical  feedback to make sure it’s ready to identify all of the sources of  emissions and ensure they are covered by regulatory changes. The  provincial regulator said on top of existing technologies, new ones are  under development.  

“Some examples include vapour recovery  units, enclosed combustors, electrification, instrument air systems and  continuous methane emissions monitors,” a spokesperson wrote in an  email. Anything that gets the job done is on the table. For example, the  spokesperson said the regulator could establish “an emission threshold”  or it could require operators to use things like optical gas imaging  cameras in monitoring.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum  Producers didn’t directly answer whether it was participating in the  provincial review but said it supports a “flexible, results-oriented and  streamlined approach to reducing emissions.”

“We look forward to working with the  British Columbia Energy Regulator to identify opportunities to further  reduce industry’s methane emissions while creating an investment  environment that supports the continued development of Canada’s oil and  natural gas resources,” Jay Averill, a spokesperson with the industry  group, wrote in an email to The Narwhal.

Once it has received submissions, the  regulator will produce a plan for more public involvement. A  spokesperson with the provincial agency told The Narwhal engagement is  focused on “technical details” and anticipates the process will continue  throughout 2023.

Top image credit: In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islandsPhoto courtesy Simon Fraser University communications Department via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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