It is the Achilles heel of the natural gas and LNG industry: methane.
Displacing coal power with natural gas can take a significant bite out of CO2 emissions, but anti-fossil fuel advocates point to a number of studies that suggest methane leaks from natural gas production may be significant enough to cancel out any benefits from CO2 reduction.
Most of those studies have focused on the U.S., which is not directly comparable to B.C., and some of the studies have been called into question. For one, some may not have accounted for methane from coal mining and combustion.
Measuring the impacts over different timescales also matter, since methane is more powerful than CO2, but shorter lived in the atmosphere. Some studies have been critiqued for the timescales used in their calculations of GHG life cycles and global warming potential.
To get a better handle on the methane leaks in B.C., and to refine regulations and technology to reduce them, a new collaboration involving government, industry, regulators and the Pembina Institute has been launched.
The BC Oil & Gas Methane Emissions Research Collaborative (MERC) will involve ministries of environment and energy, the BC Oil and Gas Commission, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Geoscience BC, the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, and the Pembina Institute.
In B.C., natural gas production accounts for about 17% of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing its methane emissions could be a cost-effective way of reducing the industry’s GHG profile.
“Reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector is one of the lowest-cost opportunities to reduce carbon pollution and key to meeting our climate goals in B.C.,” said Maximilian Kniewasser, director of the B.C. Clean Economy Program at the Pembina Institute
The B.C. government has a methane reduction target of 45% from 2014 by 2025, and the federal government has targets in a similar range.
“We will investigate leading technology and identify best practices – including those to address the detection and repair of leaks in the natural gas sector,” George Heyman, minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, said in a press release.
“The work of the research collaborative will result in applying and adapting new technologies to B.C.’s resources beginning in 2023. Our response will ensure we capture the most methane for the least cost, keeping the sector economic while reducing carbon pollution from major emitters.”
One of the problems with methane reduction targets is having a precise baseline of what the actual emissions are now, and what the main sources of the leaks are.
A number of studies focused on American shale oil and gas fields have concluded methane leakage there may be high enough to cancel out the benefits from CO2 reductions.
It can’t be assumed that the leakage rates would be the same for B.C., however.
“While the U.S. and Alberta based studies provide insights that are useful for B.C. generally, they may not always be applicable or relevant to use in decision-making due to the markedly different emission characteristics that can exist between basins and jurisdictions,” the oil and gas commission notes in a draft of the collaboration plan.
“Through this research, we hope to fill knowledge gaps, identify additional cost-effective opportunities to reduce methane emissions, and ensure regulations are effective at reducing these emissions,” said Pembina Institute director Karen Tam Wu.
“Minimizing methane emissions is critical for reducing carbon pollution from the gas sector and for achieving B.C.’s climate goals.”