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Canada's methane emissions 25 - 50 percent higher than feared

By Karen Graham     Oct 18, 2017 in Environment
The Canadian oil and gas industry and federal government may be underestimating Alberta's emissions of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
According to new research published on Tuesday, the difference between official estimates and the measured results suggests the province's energy industry may have to double its planned methane emission cuts if Alberta is to meet its promised 45 percent reduction.
In the study published in the journal, Environmental Science & Technology, measurements taken from airplane surveys of fossil fuel infrastructure in Alberta was compared to emissions reports released by the industry.
Relative importance of sources contributing to the bottom up methane inventory for the measurement r...
Relative importance of sources contributing to the bottom up methane inventory for the measurement regions near (a) Lloydminster and (b) Red Deer.
Environmental Science & Technology
"Our first reaction was 'Oh my goodness, this is a really big deal,'" study author Matthew Johnson told the Guardian. "If we thought it was bad, it's worse." Alberta, Canada's top fossil fuel-producing province, has set a goal of reducing methane emissions 45 percent by 2025—a target the researchers say could be "severely compromised" by the study's findings.
At the present time, the industry is only required to report the amount of methane released during flaring and venting. So-called "fugitive emissions" from machinery, leaky valves, and other sources are only estimated.
However, according to an unreleased study in 2016, about 10 percent of Alberta’s 1,500 abandoned oil and gas wells in urban areas are leaking methane, in some cases at levels that create the risk of health damage and explosions. Leaked methane is also a wasted product. In 2015, nearly $370 million worth of natural gas escaped from Canadian oil and gas fields, enough to supply every household in Edmonton and Calgary for a year.
Measurement regions of interest near the cities of Lloydminster and Red Deer in Alberta.
Measurement regions of interest near the cities of Lloydminster and Red Deer in Alberta.
Environmental Science & Technology
How the aerial survey was conducted
Johnson's study is the first to use aerial surveys of the oil and gas fields for methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Seven passes were made over Red Deer, a conventional oil and gas region in central Alberta and four passes were made over the heavy oil center of Lloydminster.
The flights covered thousands of wells in both areas, primarily to reduce the odds of distorting unusually high emissions from some sites. Researchers were also able to distinguish between methane emissions from agriculture and the fossil fuel industry by tracking trace amounts of ethane, a gas only released by oil and gas, and not by cattle.
That allows us to attribute it," Johnson said. The measurements were compared with methane releases reported by industry and methane emissions estimated in the most recent National Pollutant Release Inventory.
Global methane gas emissions from 2010.
Global methane gas emissions from 2010.
In Lloydminster, the type of heavy oil recovery used actually was releasing 3.6 times more methane than had been reported. The same extraction method is also used in the Peace River, Cold Lake, and Athabasca regions. Johnson said that if methane emissions from other areas were also being underreported, this could raise the amount of the greenhouse gas by 50 percent.
The study also confirmed that fugitive emissions account for 94 percent of released methane. That has major implications for governments considering new regulations on methane emissions. "You can't ignore those sources. Those leaks really are a big deal," said Johnson.
Ottawa estimates compliance costs for draft regulations released last spring to be $3.3 billion over 18 years, partially offset by recovered methane worth $1.6 billion.
More about Methane, Emissions, Alberta, oil and gas sector, Canada
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