Canada’s oil and gas industry has a massive problem with under-reported methane leaks and fugitive emissions from oil and gas facilities in Alberta and British Columbia.
That’s the conclusion of two new studies that document, for the first time, just how significant methane pollution has become in the country’s oil and gas producing regions.
Both studies identified methane leaks from pneumatic devices designed to control gas flows at well sites as a big part of the problem, along with a lack of regulations on monitoring, reporting and fixing the leaks.
In addition to being a much more powerful contributor to climate instability than carbon dioxide, methane leakage can contaminate groundwater, kill vegetation, create air pollution and waste valuable economic resources.
A peer-reviewed study appearing in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions used measurements in the field to estimate that methane emissions from B.C.’s shale gas basins are now at least 2.5 times higher than provincial government estimates.
That makes the oil and gas sector the largest source of climate pollution in B.C., a greater source of pollution than commercial transportation.
Based on measurements from mobile methane detectors driven around in a Dodge truck, the study found that just the drilling part of the industry in the B.C. portion of the Montney Formation, a 29,850 square-kilometre siltstone area in Western Canada, is releasing 111,800 tonnes of methane a year into the atmosphere.
That is equivalent to burning more than 4.5 million tonnes of coal or putting more than two million cars on the road. Half of B.C.’s fracked gas currently comes from the Montney. The study did not look at methane leaks from pipelines or gas processing plants.
“If we had done a more detailed survey of emissions from all sources, including gas migration from groundwater and the soil, we would be talking about a much larger figure than 111,800 tonnes,” said John Werring, a co-author of the study and senior scientist with the David Suzuki Foundation.
In contrast the B.C. government estimates that methane emissions from all sources in the oil and gas sector total around 78,000 tonnes a year.
One of the nation’s leading centres on greenhouse gas detection, the FluxLab at St. Francis Xavier University, teamed up with the David Suzuki Foundation to do the B.C. study after scientists identified the extent of methane leaks from hydraulic fracturing as a large data gap in 2012.
The B.C. study found leaks coming from almost half of 1,600 wells surveyed. The methane came from either surface-casing vents or pneumatic devices designed to control the rate and flow of gas through various equipment.
Older wells tended to leak more than newer wells, said Werring.
“Our data indicate that the fracking and LNG industry is a much dirtier industry than it is made out to be,” added Werring.
Other scientists have made the same point. More than 130 scientists recently criticized the federal government for assessing the climate change impact of a proposed Petronas LNG terminal in B.C. by using unverified and unrealistically small estimates of methane leakage.
All LNG environmental assessments in the province to date have used a questionable methane leakage rate of 0.28 per cent estimated by the B.C. government — one of the lowest rates on the continent.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates that most natural gas operations lose about 1.33 per cent of their product, while some sites have recorded leakage rates as high as nine per cent. Leakage rates above three per cent make methane as dirty as coal in terms of direct impact on climate change.
The study recommends that industry and government should focus on locating and reducing super-emitting sites, and then follow up with infrared camera monitoring on a regular basis.
New Alberta leak data
Meanwhile, another study found that methane leaks pose an even graver problem in Alberta, home to more than 300,000 oil and gas wells. (B.C. currently has 25,000 wells, but LNG developments could add 150,000 wells in the Montney Formation alone.)
A study by Environmental Defence found that the volume of methane leaked from Alberta facilities over a one-year period, 490 kilotonnes, could heat more than 200,000 Alberta homes.
In addition, the study found that methane leaking from the oil and gas sector in Canada’s leading petro province had a market value of $67 million, and that industry and government were also under-reporting methane pollution.
To back up its case, the environmental group reviewed the findings of a 2017 study by the Alberta Energy Regulator and GreenPath Energy, which found that “the actual emissions at oil and gas facilities from pneumatic devices are 60 per cent higher than estimates used to compile Canada’s GHG inventory.”
Pneumatic devices, mostly powered by methane, help to pump and control the flow of gas from well sites and other facilities. Most vent methane directly to the atmosphere too.
The GreenPath Energy study measured leaks from pneumatic devices at 395 sites and almost 700 wells at six locations in Alberta and identified 77 major leaks via infrared cameras and direct methane vents from 236 pieces of equipment. GreenPath Energy is a Calgary-based company that specializes in managing greenhouse gas emissions.
The researchers found that 95 per cent of the pneumatic devices at conventional oil and gas facilities vented methane and other gases such as benzene. Oil well sites leaked the most methane.
Environmental Defence estimates that methane pollution from leaking devices in five of six areas surveyed was equivalent to emissions from 9 million cars over a 20-year period.
In addition, the GreenPath survey “found there were, on average, 3.0 pneumatic controllers and 1.2 pumps per site and that each site emitted the GHG equivalent of 20 vehicles,” said the Environmental Defence report
In 2016 another Green Path study showed that a number of alternatives exist to gas-driven pneumatic pumps that are viable at northern latitudes and in colder climates, but the economics don’t work at current methane prices.
The sources of methane leaks from Canada’s aging oil patch are varied and include both accidental and intentional releases of the methane and other gases.
Some leaks come from faulty equipment at wells, pipelines and gas plants while other equipment directly vents methane into the atmosphere as a waste byproduct.
Methane can also migrate from well sites into soil where it kills vegetation or contaminates groundwater. It can also surface in people’s homes, basements and water well pumps.
Hydraulic fracturing has also increased the volume of methane directly dumped into the atmosphere.
Scientists have argued that reducing fugitive methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is one of the most cost effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But Canadian energy regulators and government have been reluctant to act or change the rules on reporting due to pressure from industry lobbyists.
Last year the Trudeau government promised to regulate an end to some of the methane leaks by 2020, but it has already broken that promise. Last week it announced that it will delay any action on methane leakage until 2023.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a powerful industry lobby group, said it did not support the findings or recommendations of the studies “due to their limited scope.”
It approved the delay on curbing emissions because “Government needs time to develop cost-effective regulations, negotiate equivalency agreements and operationalize regulations.”
Like the Trudeau government, the Trump administration has also backed away from federal rules to control $2 billion worth of methane leaks from the oil and gas industry every year.
The new methane studies confirm how industry has under-reported methane pollution for years by relying on computer models instead of real-time measurements of leaks.
One 2004 study on natural gas processing plants in Alberta and B.C. found that measured emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds at these facilities were four to eight times higher than industry computer estimates.
According to Environment Canada, the oil and gas sector is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in Canada, accounting for 26 per cent of total emissions, followed closely by the transportation sector, which emitted 24 per cent.
Based on estimates that the new studies have thrown into question, methane accounted for 15 per cent of Canada’s total emissions in 2013, largely from fugitive emissions from oil and natural gas systems.