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Field Studies Show Drastically Higher Methane Emissions in B.C., Alberta

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Methane pollution is 250% above government estimates in British Columbia and 60% higher in Alberta, according to two separate reports released this week by the David Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence.

The findings put added pressure on the federal government’s decision [1] last week to postpone new methane controls for the oil and gas industry from 2020 to 2023.

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DSF’s “groundbreaking research”, now undergoing final review by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions, shows that “B.C.’s estimates of methane pollution from oil and gas activity in the province’s Peace region are wildly underestimated,” DeSmog Canada reports. Working with St. Francis Xavier University, and “using infrared cameras and gas detection instruments at over a thousand oil and gas sites during a three-year period,” the Foundation “recorded fugitive methane emissions being released from facilities directly into the atmosphere on a perpetual basis.”

The research “shows the true magnitude of B.C.’s methane pollution problem is much bigger than previously reported by industry and government,” said DSF Director of Science and Policy Ian Bruce.

“This is the climate pollution equivalent of burning more than 4.5 million tonnes of coal, or putting more than two million cars on the road,” added co-author John Werring, DSF’s senior science and policy advisor. “The reason why these things are not being fixed is simply to save money,’ he told Global News.

The Environmental Defence report [3] cited research commissioned by the Alberta Energy Regulator to document similar under-reporting of methane emissions. “Equipment is routinely malfunctioning and leaking methane, and industry is venting methane—simply releasing it to the atmosphere,” the report states.

ED recommends quarterly leak detection and repair, noting that “methane emissions provide one of the lowest-cost emission reduction opportunities available in Canada. Research in other jurisdictions shows that plugging methane leaks and upgrading equipment can result in increased profits through the capture of methane for use or sale.”

Citing evidence from the United States, Environmental Defence National Program Manager Dale Marshall notes [4] that “when companies are mandated to inspect equipment at least four times per year, many leaks are found and often easily repaired. Equipment that intentionally releases methane—like pumps and controllers—can be replaced by equipment that doesn’t.

Methane releases are a health hazard, especially because the gas is often associated with even more hazardous substances like benzene, a known carcinogen, Marshall notes.

Moreover, “leaked gas is wasted gas. The methane gas that industry is letting disappear into thin air every year is enough gas to heat more than 200,000 Alberta homes and has a market value of $67.6 million.” And that means “Canadian governments are losing out on revenue. When oil and gas companies let methane leaks go undetected, they are wasting a public resource.

But despite the cost arguments (or, for the industry, revenue opportunities) in the ED report, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was quick to reject the two environmental organizations’ conclusions. “Industry does not support the findings or recommendations of these studies due to their limited scope and misrepresentation of reporting mechanisms currently in place,” said [5] spokesperson Chelsie Klassen.

Earlier in the week, the Toronto Star issued a harshly-worded editorial reacting to the postponed federal methane regulations.

The Trudeau government’s decision to delay its promised regulations on methane emissions points yet again to a worrying gap between Ottawa’s rhetoric on the environment and its willingness to act,” the editorial board stated [6] Tuesday. “Clearly there are often good reasons to delay or compromise, but the retreat on methane seems to be part of a larger and troubling trend. Trudeau has changed the conversation on the environment and taken important steps, but there’s reason to be skeptical that he’s willing to make the really difficult tradeoffs required of a prime minister serious about climate action.