In Conversation: Canada is Weakening Methane Regulations that Need to be Toughened, Marshall Says
Dale Marshall is National Climate Program Manager at Environmental Defence Canada, a veteran of many climate finance discussions at United Nations climate conferences, and one of the Canadian climate community’s specialists on methane regulations. In this feature interview, he talks about Canada’s failure to seize one of the quickest, easiest opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and explains what could possibly go wrong when Ottawa cedes its authority for methane controls to the three western provinces.
The Energy Mix: What’s the immediate issue with the equivalency agreements with Alberta and Saskatchewan?
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Marshall: Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), Canada can pass regulations to control pollutants, and carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like methane are considered pollutants. So the federal government has the authority to regulate methane from oil and gas and make sure those emissions are reduced.
But CEPA also allows provinces to develop and implement their own regulations instead, with the one really important caveat that their rules have to be as effective as the federal ones. They have to deliver the same or better environmental outcomes. Earlier this month, the federal government finalized agreements with Alberta and Saskatchewan that allow them to move forward with their own regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, rather than applying the federal regulations.
The Mix: What’s wrong with that in this case?
Marshall: There are a number problems with granting this equivalency, and they just got worse. Last week, scientists from Environment and Climate Change Canada published a peer-reviewed paper that estimates methane emissions from oil and gas facilities and looks at the reductions that will result from current regulations. It showed that both the federal and provincial regulations were not strong enough for Canada to meet its commitment to reduce methane emissions by 40 to 45% by 2025.
So we were urging the federal government to strengthen its regulations before finalizing these agreements, then turn to the provinces and say, “okay, now you need to match these stronger regulations that do allow Canada to achieve the commitments the Prime Minister made”. Instead, [Environment and Climate] Minister [Jonathan] Wilkinson went ahead and signed those agreements with Saskatchewan and Alberta, knowing that scientists in his own department were saying the federal regulations and the provincial regulations that would replace them were insufficient to meet the commitment. They’re actually really far off—the target is 40 to 45%, and the ECCC model showed reductions of only about 29%.
The Mix: But wouldn’t a stronger federal standard be grandparented into the provincial ones? Surely an equivalency agreement wouldn’t give a province a free pass as the federal rule evolved?
Marshall: These equivalency agreements are five-year agreements. The one they’re finalizing this year dates back to the beginning of 2020 and runs to the end of 2024. If the federal government does strengthen its regulations, it can go back to the provinces under CEPA and say the equivalency agreement no longer applies, that the federal regulations have changed and now the provinces have to strengthen theirs, or they can just apply the federal one.
But it still introduces an additional political barrier to strengthening the federal regulations if the equivalency agreements have to be torn up a year or two or three before they’re supposed to end. There are no legal barriers, but will it be difficult politically for a federal government to do that? Minister Wilkinson is saying we’ll wait and see, wait until the end of next year, assess how the regulations are doing, and maybe strengthen them if they’re insufficient. But to us, that seems irresponsible. The best analysis they have at ECCC says they will far short of Canada’s commitment on methane, and they would surely have known about that paper, because peer-reviewed research isn’t finalized and published overnight. So why are we going forward with an agreement that entrenches an insufficient approach?
The peer-reviewed paper really makes the equivalency agreements an egregious disregard for what is needed on methane. The lead scientists who did the research showed that methane emissions from oil and gas facilities in Alberta and Saskatchewan are almost twice as high as the estimates in Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory. The research has been going on literally for years, and it’s been finalized for a long time. Minister Wilkinson should be aware of his own department’s research, so it’s really problematic that the Minister of Environment and Climate Change would decide not to strengthen the regulations when he knows the emissions are much higher than the official data says.
The Mix: This is not the first time we’ve heard about uncounted methane emissions from the Canadian fossil industry. Why does it seem to be so hard to get accurate methane measurements out of western Canada?
Marshall: A big part of it has to do with the way data is collected. Many of the estimates count the compressors, pumps, and tanks in a facility and calculate the expected emissions that come from those different pieces of equipment. So you essentially have a model that adds them all up and gives you the estimated emissions. But the science is showing something different, and it’s absolutely consistent across the board. Regardless of the methodology, the site, the geographic area, or whether the product is heavy oil, light oil, oilsands, it doesn’t matter: All of these studies are showing that methane emissions are higher than the estimates.
That’s because, instead of just doing a census, a lot of the new research actually goes out and tests it using flyover data to measure actual methane emissions from the sites. When you do that kind of accurate measurement, as opposed to estimates based on what we think this equipment might emit, the emissions are twice as high as the earlier estimates.
This is another problem with the equivalency agreements, because the federal regulations are much better at detecting leaks. It’s one of the main ways to reduce methane emissions: you go onto sites with infrared cameras, since methane is odourless and colourless, you find the leaks, and you plug them. The federal regulations do that very well, but the provincial regulations are weaker on leak detection and repair. So the problem identified in the science report is even bigger when you apply provincial rules instead of federal ones.
The Mix: How can the federal government not be taking this more seriously given methane’s potency as a short-acting greenhouse gas?
Marshall: It’s crazy that this is not getting more attention and more action. Because there are so many reasons why acting on methane makes sense. Methane reductions of are some of the cheapest climate solutions. The research shows that Canada can meet a 40 to 45% target at an average price of $10 per tonne, just one-third of the carbon price we have right now, and it’s on its way up. Methane is a really potent greenhouse gas, and especially potent over the short term, with almost 100 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. And acting on methane means better human health, since methane is a toxin and other toxins like volatile organic compounds are associated with it.
It also creates jobs. There are literally hundreds of companies in Canada that in one way or another act to reduce methane emissions, whether it’s because they have leak detection equipment or technology to plug leaks, or produce equipment that is zero- as opposed to low-emitting. Making sure that oil and gas companies are forced to reduce their emissions means investing in those solutions, and that means jobs. Workers are onsite detecting the leaks. They’re switching old equipment for zero-emitting devices. So a number of good jobs are being created.
And if all of that isn’t enough, we have an incoming administration in Washington that is poised to reverse Trump’s weakening of methane rules in the U.S. So when we’re on the cusp of potential greater action in the U.S., Canada has allowed weaker rules to go forward.
The Mix: Canada, the U.S., and Mexico adopted the 40 to 45% target in 2016. Now we’re hearing Biden will be bringing back the same or pushing for more. Is the federal government waiting for instructions, or setting the country up to be left behind?
Marshall: The federal government should be fully aware of President-elect Biden’s intentions because there’ve been numerous reports where methane shows up on a relatively short list of priorities for climate action for the incoming administration. And strong methane regulations make so much sense that Donald Trump actually had difficulty rolling them back in the first two years of his administration, even though he had majorities in the U.S. House and the Senate. A number of Republican representatives opposed the rollbacks because of the jobs, the health impacts, and the low cost of putting solutions in place. The Canadian government should know all this, that methane will be priority for President Biden, so it’s even more mystifying that at this time, after the U.S. election, they’ve decided to not take a stronger approach and make sure the rules in Canada will allow our targets to be met.
Follow-up: @CCDale, @envirodefence