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With scientists flagging methane reductions as the quickest first step to get climate crisis under control, governments in Canada and elsewhere have to stop relying on fossil fuel companies to reliably report emissions of the colourless, odourless gas from their operations, pioneering methane researcher Robert Howarth told The Energy Mix in an interview this week.
Last month’s alarming science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change attributed 40% of global warming to date to methane, and called for a 40 to 45% emissions cut by 2030, said Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And on the campaign trail, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is promising a 75% cut from 2012 emission levels by 2030.
But that promise will be hard to keep without a more consistent effort to track the emissions from fracking fields, abandoned oil and gas wells, coal infrastructure, and other sources.
“What Canadian governments, provincial governments, governments of the world have traditionally done is to rely on industry to self-report what their emissions are,” Howarth told The Mix. “The United States government still does that, almost all governments do it, and it’s done without independent verification. So if you think the industry has the ability and the motivation to do it fairly, that’s a great system. Otherwise, maybe not.”
The scene began to shift on methane emissions just 10½ years ago, when Howarth’s lab published its first paper indicating that methane emissions from natural gas fracking operations produced a serious climate footprint. Despite 1,700 scientific papers from multiple sources since, he said government regulators everywhere still rely on industry reporting. That’s despite mounting evidence that “the official reporting from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is low by at least a factor two, maybe a factor of three, compared to what independent measurements show.”
The difference comes down to the way the tracking is done, Howarth explained. What he called “on-the-ground, bottom-up” measurements capture leaks from specific valves, pipelines, or compressor stations. But the testing isn’t always done consistently, and it “requires cooperation by industry. You have to go onto their site and do it where and when they want you to. So one can imagine that you’re selecting for the best performance by the best actors, as opposed to average performance by average companies.”
The other option is to gather remote data from airplane flyovers and, increasingly, satellite measurements, using sensitive equipment that can produce accurate results from a distance. That top-down approach, Howarth said, invariably reveals higher methane emissions than bottom-up measurement.
With various independent organizations now launching small, relatively inexpensive satellites to measure methane, some of the onus is off governments to conduct the research themselves. But they still have to pay attention to—and take action on—the data.
“They need to buy into the idea that we need independent verification of what industry self-reports,” Howarth said. “Either you continue to use industry sources and verify, or perhaps you don’t rely on the industry and actually use quality, independent scientists to make their measurements for you.”
While that reality presents a challenge to Trudeau’s methane pledge, the Liberal leader is not alone: the U.S. still relies on unverified industry data, some European Union countries are farther ahead than others, “but no country is perfect,” Howarth said.
“The technology for being able to make these measurements is pretty new, the satellites are pretty new, the global focus from the science community on the importance of methane is also pretty new,” he said. “It’s all new terrain, but we need to move fast, and governments need to find a way forward.”