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Methane: The “Super Pollutant”
In a 2022 interview with the CBC, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe stated that “Saskatchewan industries and people, I think, take climate change very seriously,” adding that “Saskatchewan has an industry that has reduced its methane emission by 60 percent relative to 2015.” However, new Canadian studies prove these assertions inaccurate and that Saskatchewan protecting its oil and gas industry may prevent Canada from meeting its climate targets.
Methane is a highly harmful greenhouse gas that, according to the Government of Canada, is estimated to be responsible for about 30% of recorded global warming to date. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane is 80 times stronger in warming the atmosphere for the first two decades after it releases. However, it is also classified as a “short-lived” pollutant, meaning it stays in the atmosphere for a shorter period than other harmful gases. The oil and gas industry is the largest Canadian producer of methane, but agriculture and landfills also create methane. Methane is intentionally released when natural gas is vented at an oil facility or leaked from valves or storage tanks. Therefore, measures taken to cut methane emissions can be one of the most effective methods to curb the consequences of climate change, as they will reduce atmospheric levels relatively quickly.
According to the most recent National Inventory Report published by Environment Canada in 2022, Saskatchewan is one of the top greenhouse gas emitters nationwide, succeeded only by Alberta. The oil and gas industry is responsible for “nearly 30% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions”, and this rate continues to grow. Saskatchewan’s oil and gas industry is responsible for approximately 60% “of the province’s methane emissions,” making it extremely important to consider when Canada is trying to create realistic yet aggressive climate goals. Without consistent measurements and regulations applied to this industry, Canada essentially creates random targets.
At the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), the Canadian government announced its plans to “reduce methane emissions produced by the oil and gas sector by 75% by 2030,” compared to 2012 levels. Lowering methane levels is also extremely important for protecting human health and quality of life. Large amounts of methane within our ozone can increase a person’s likelihood of having asthma attacks and lung decay. In fact, excessive methane exposure causes 500,000 premature deaths worldwide. These methane mitigation goals sit back against the climate crisis, which threatens the global population, especially the most vulnerable communities.
Saskatchewan’s Protection of Oil and Gas
Despite the urgent need to reduce methane, Premier Scott Moe has pushed back against some climate goals proposed by the federal government, claiming that they will cost Saskatchewan’s industries $111 billion by 2035. In a policy report published by Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Finance, the province declared they may prepare to take legal action to maintain control of “electricity, fertilizer emission/use targets and oil/gas emissions and production.” Moe asserted that “we cannot allow continued federal intrusion into our exclusive constitutional right to develop our natural resources and grow our economy.” However, some economists have called this report into question. Trevor Tombe, Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary, said the report’s “analysis turned out to be incredibly weak” as it makes assumptions about the cost of the federal carbon tax while omitting relevant factors such as the savings consumers could make long-term on zero-emissions vehicles.
Scott Moe has a history of criticizing environmental regulations proposed by the federal government, accused of flippancy towards the threat of climate change in general. “A lot of folks will come to me and say ‘Hey, you guys have the highest carbon emissions per capita.’ I don’t care,” Moe said in a 2022 speech to the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce. By 2021, Saskatchewan’s greenhouse gas emissions had reportedly increased by 10% since 2005, making it one of only five provinces that had not reduced their emissions within this time.
Johnathan Wilkinson, then Minister of Environment and Climate Change, criticized Saskatchewan for their hesitancy to adopt aggressive climate policies, implying that Moe’s rejections of federal climate policies are politically motivated: “You shouldn’t be arguing against the science of climate change. You should be trying to figure out how you make progress in a way that’s most relevant for your community.” Moe’s hostility towards reducing emissions, combined with the insufficient promises of Canada’s oil and gas industry, seems to have created a predicament in which they have underestimated how much methane they release in our atmosphere.
Methane Underestimation in Saskatchewan
New research indicates that oil and gas facilities in Saskatchewan are emitting almost four times the reported amount of methane. The oil and gas industry generally relies on estimations based on how much methane comes to the surface for each barrel of oil, then multiplies that estimate by the number of oil barrels produced each year. However, the amount of methane emissions associated with oil production can vary to a highly significant extent. These new studies combine airborne and ground-level observational methods to measure the release of methane and reveal how inaccurate the current measurement methodology can be.
One study investigated 962 heavy oil facilities in Saskatchewan and found that they produced more than 10,000 kilograms of methane per hour, starkly contrasting the reported 2,655 kilograms. Carleton University Professor of Engineering Matthew Johnson, who authored this study, asserted that “that [amount of] methane, on its own, would be a significant contribution to the entire inventory of Saskatchewan.”
The study also shows that significant sources and producers of methane are being completely disregarded in conventional “by the barrel” estimates. More than half of oil and gas methane emissions can be sourced from storage tanks, reciprocating compressors, and unlit flares, which are not in previous measurements. Although the federal government allows Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan to set their methane regulations, neither federal nor provincial regulations directly address leaks from compressors or unlit flares.
Regulators are missing the mark and letting large methane leaks go unnoticed while imposing no penalties for the companies accountable. In September of last year, a European Space Agency Satellite detected a massive methane plume near Lloydminster, an oil-and-gas town straddling the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta. A report from Kayrros, an energy and environmental analytics company, estimated that the plume had an emissions rate of 11 tonnes per hour, as much as 200 vehicles emit annually. The Alberta Energy Regulator—which oversees greenhouse gases purposefully released into the atmosphere—accesses data from the same satellite as Kayrros. And yet, it said the methane cloud was not flagged. Serious oversights like this spell disaster for Canada’s ability to meet its climate goals, and for the right of everyone to live in an environment free from harmful pollution.
Are Canada’s Climate Targets Achievable?
In short, they will not be — not without accurate estimations of greenhouse gas emissions. The Saskatchewan government’s resistance towards federal climate policies, with the inaccuracy of the oil and gas industry’s emissions reporting, presents undeniable obstacles to Canada meeting its climate targets. Tom Green, a policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation, denounced Canada’s lack of regulations and inaccurate industry measurements of methane: “For such a large country, globally, in terms of where we fit in the natural gas exports, we should be doing much, much more and we should be showing leadership.”
Last year, CBC reported that Tim Doty, a former senior regulator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, surveyed 128 oil and gas sites in Saskatchewan and Alberta. He remarked, “There’s uncontrolled methane everywhere. I can’t describe the magnitude of the emissions we saw. I don’t think … that regulatory authorities have any idea of how much methane is going into the atmosphere.”
Canada has a history of failures in trying to meet its climate commitments, with experts describing the current plans as being marred with “policy incoherence.” Canada signed onto the Paris Agreement’s target of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Yet, it is not doing its fair share to meet that goal realistically. Canada’s Environment Commissioner agrees, saying that “we cannot afford a fourth decade of failure on climate action.” Still, the actions, policies, and regulations done by the Canadian government are woefully inadequate compared to the promises it makes on the world stage.
The Future of Methane
The positive news is that multiple, relatively cost-effective measures can be put in place by the government to drastically reduce the emissions of Saskatchewan and Canada’s oil and gas industry. However, politicians, like Scott Moe, must first see climate change as a non-partisan issue that will profoundly affect everyone if not confronted directly and aggressively.
Most importantly, the federal and provincial governments should utilize various technologies undertaken by the government, independent researchers, and regulators to measure methane emissions. These measures must include data from all potential sources of methane, including compressors and unlit flares. Furthermore, venting methane must be limited by oil and gas companies. When methane venting is unavoidable, there may be other ways we can capture and use it sustainably. In 2017, Saskatchewan created a $5 million facility to turn some of the methane emissions from its landfills into electrical energy. The methane can be refined and used as fuel for electricity to power up to 1,000 homes per year in Regina.
Notably, the method of turning methane into electricity will still release carbon dioxide as a by-product but shows promising possibilities for the productive use of methane that would otherwise release into the atmosphere. Although this technology has not yet been utilized in an oil and gas context, there are potential opportunities to use methane sustainably and could offset some of the loss to provincial revenue that Scott Moe is concerned with, as the process results in a product that can sell.
To set up and meet realistic targets, the government must have accurate and consistent data. Canada plans to create a Global Centre for Excellence on methane measurement, detection, and elimination, which will likely work to eliminate the disparities in data seen across industry, province, and federal reports. With global welfare at stake and vulnerable communities under greater risk than ever, an “I don’t care” attitude spells disaster for our climate.
Edited by Sun Woo Bailk