A lot of the talk around climate change focuses on our carbon dioxide emissions, which are produced when we burn fossil fuels. But there's an even more powerful, if lesser-known, greenhouse gas: Methane, which is 84 times more potent as a climate pollutant than CO2 over a 20-year period, according to the environmental nonprofit David Suzuki Foundation (DSF). It's crucial to know how much of it we're spewing into the environment.
Turns out that, in British Columbia, methane emissions may be much higher than expected. A new study, in the peer-reviewed Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, finds that "fugitive" methane emissions (essentially methane leaks) from BC's oil and gas industry, which is largely focused on fracking, are at least 2.5 times higher than what the province had estimated.
The problem of lowballing methane emissions doesn't seem to be limited to BC, either. A separate report from the nonprofit Environmental Defence, out today, estimates that methane emissions are 60 percent higher in Alberta than what the industry has said.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government is planning to delay new regulations that would place greater control on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, according to the CBC. They will be held up by three years, which critics call a blow to our climate commitments.
In the BC study, which the DSF calls "the first on-the-ground, comprehensive research on methane emissions in Canada," scientists travelled over 8,000 kilometres with "sniffer trucks"—vehicles equipped with methane detectors—to cover over 1,600 well pads and facilities in the Montney formation of BC, where a lot of oil and gas extraction takes place.
That region alone pushes more than 111,800 tonnes of methane into the air every single year, according to the DSF, equal to burning more than 4.5 million tons of coal. Given that provinces like Ontario and Alberta are moving away from coal as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, methane leaks happening under the radar are concerning. (BC doesn't use coal-fired power plants, but is a major exporter of coal.)
In BC, "every citizen is paying a carbon tax to try and minimize their footprint on the planet," study author John Werring, senior science and policy advisor at the DSF, told me. "We keep increasing the price of gas so you'll drive less, but here we have an industry that is producing that gas" and releasing methane into the environment.
The BC government says that it's working to limit methane emissions resulting from natural gas exploration, and that these emissions are "currently lower in BC than many jurisdictions" because of requirements to conserve the gas where possible, instead of simply venting it. Oil and gas operators also need to have a plan to manage fugitive emissions, including controlling any leaks. The province's Climate Leadership Plan also tackles methane emissions with new regulatory standards that are expected to reduce methane emissions by 45 percent by 2025—an annual reduction of 1 million tonnes.
Werring believes that we need stronger regulations around oil and gas development across Canada. "If we're going to combat climate change, the single biggest contributor is the oil and gas industry," he said. "They're the ones with the highest emissions, so we need to get that industry to start taking responsibility for fixing issues that are there."
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