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A new coalition of environmental, business and labour groups wants Albertans to know: methane is so much more than just cow farts.
morethanjustcowfarts.ca is a new website backed by 10 groups hoping to convince the Alberta government that easy solutions for strong methane restrictions are available, and to educate the public about the dangers of unregulated methane gas.
The groups released an open letter to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on Aug. 1, calling on the NDP premier to “bring in world-leading methane regulations designed for Alberta’s needs.”
“Methane suffers from the fact that people just don’t know about it,” said Duncan Kinney, the executive director of Progress Alberta, one of the groups which put their name to the letter.
“It gets cast as cow farts or cow burps. It gets dismissed, despite the fact that it’s an extremely large part of Alberta’s carbon dioxide budget.”
The coalition of environmental groups is challenging a powerful lobbying push against tough rules.
For years, Canada's main oil and gas lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, has been actively lobbying to ease up and delay rules to crack down on their pollution, arguing that it could harm their profits.
The new campaign is urging the government to get tougher.
Think fossil fuels, not just cows
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that's 86 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year period, a process that contributes to dangerous climate change.
That means reducing methane, which is 14 per cent of Canada's total emissions and 11 per cent of Alberta's total emissions, is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways of reducing the country’s climate pollution.
In Canada, the most prevalent source of the colourless, odorless gas is the fossil fuel sector, responsible for 42 per cent of total methane emissions, according to federal government statistics.
Meanwhile, the agriculture sector represents 28 per cent of total methane emissions, and less than half of that slice is due to “enteric fermentation,” or the breakdown of food in a cow’s digestive process. (The other large slice in agriculture is the use of fertilizers.)
Both the Notley government and the federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have put methane regulations into their official plans to tackle climate change.
Alberta has committed to cutting emissions 45 percent from 2014 levels by 2025, while Ottawa wants to see a slightly different target, a 40 to 45 per cent reduction from 2012 levels by 2025.
The Alberta Energy Regulator’s 2016-17 annual report, released this spring, noted that draft regulatory development was already 60 per cent complete. Asked for an updated completion rate, AER spokeswoman Shelley Ingram said "nearly complete."
The regulator is also aiming for a fall deadline for the draft rules, and "final requirements are expected to be published next year."
Don't water down Alberta rules, groups warn
The open letter calls on Notley to use the draft federal regulations “as a floor and not a ceiling.” The groups behind the letter are worried that Alberta's proposed rules will be a watered-down version of the federal rules.
“We would look to a province like Alberta to treat it as a minimum and to try and exceed it,” said Jamie Kirkpatrick, program manager for the labour-environmental alliance Blue Green Canada.
In the oil and gas industry, methane comes from both deliberate and accidental equipment leaks. Some pressurized equipment is specifically designed to release methane into the atmosphere, while gas is also released by accident due to leaking or malfunctioning.
Companies can deliberately release excess gas into the air, a process called venting, or burn it off in a process called flaring, as an easy way of getting rid of the product.
The proposed federal rules allow, among other things, for facilities to flare off the gas, for leak inspection to cease during the winter, and for venting requirements and compressor repairs to only apply to facilities over a certain threshold of emissions per year or per minute.
The group behind the open letter believes no methane gas should be allowed to leak at any point.
“There is an emerging consensus that continuing to allow methane to leak and vent is no longer an acceptable cost of doing business,” the open letter reads.
It is believed that methane emissions at oil and gas facilities in Alberta are higher than reported by as much as 60 per cent over Canada's official estimates, according to an Environmental Defence report released this spring.
"On average, there is almost one piece of equipment leaking or venting methane at each well, [but] industry is not currently required to look for methane leaks to see if they have a problem," the report stated.
Kirkpatrick said the group believes more stringent rules are relatively easy to achieve. “In terms of climate action, it’s a low-hanging fruit,” he said. “We’re talking, in a lot of cases, about tightening valves and upgrading equipment. We’re not saying transformative change in the industry is required.”
The AER said it would not answer any questions related to "comparisons between federal and provincial requirements." Those questions should be directed to the government of Alberta, said Ingram.
National Observer's questions to Notley's office were forwarded to Alberta's environment minister, Shannon Phillips.
Brent Wittmeier, press secretary for Phillips, said in addition to its provincial methane reduction target, Alberta is cutting methane "in other ways, including output-based allocations and targeted exemptions." Emissions Reductions Alberta announced $29.5 million in provincial grants to 12 projects "to monitor, detect and reduce methane emissions," he noted.
The province has been working with industry "to foster innovation while protecting the long-term competitiveness of the oil and gas industry," said Wittmeier.
CAPP wants 'ability to adjust' leak rules
Elisabeth Besson, a spokeswoman for the industry lobby group, CAPP, told National Observer in an email that the association opposes what she described as "onerous" rules proposed by the federal government. She said these would require companies to conduct extensive inspections to detect leaks.
"The requirements to achieve approval are onerous and do not enable innovative technology based solutions to identify anomalous leaks," she told National Observer.
Instead, CAPP is lobbying the government to ease up these rules to factor in unproven technologies. Besson described this approach as a "performance-based" system.
"Industry is actively working with governments to fund and investigate promising technologies that will remotely detect emissions on a regular basis and in doing so, along with current screening work practices, will alleviate the need for multiple comprehensive surveys per year," she said.
This July, CAPP released a new policy paper that calls for an "ability to adjust" how stringent any methane leak detection and repair would be, "based on performance, new research and technology."
That's because while CAPP believes certain facilities have fewer leaks than others, said Besson, "the proposed federal regulations do not take advantage of the opportunity to recognize strong ongoing individual facility performance."
This isn't the first time CAPP has found issues with proposed methane regulations.
When the draft federal rules were being drawn up last year, CAPP called for a delay in the proposed timeline for implementation, arguing they would impose an administrative and cost burden.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna's office agreed the oilpatch needed more time to make changes and budget needed capital, and when the proposed rules were revealed this May, they did contain delayed timelines.
Duncan Kenyon, priority director for responsible fossil fuels at the Pembina Institute, another group that signed the open letter, said the industry was "blowing hot air" on the subject when it comes to costs. He argued they would be a "drop in the bucket" for an industry with such a large overall budget.
Besson said CAPP agrees with the federal government's target for methane cuts, and wants to see an approach to methane emissions reduction that "stimulates innovation in a vibrant and competitive oil and natural gas sector."
But she also raised concerns about "the potential impact on competitiveness that the methane regulations may pose as the divide between Canada and the United States continues to grow."
Looser climate policies in fossil fuel-heavy United States jurisdictions, said Besson, such as Texas or North Dakota, is creating "regulatory uncertainty and represents an addition to the cumulative cost burden." Increasing Canada-U.S. competition for market share is "eroding investor confidence in the Canadian oil and natural gas industry."
Methane a public health concern, argues physicians group
But Kenyon said the public also doesn't fully understand the “co-benefits” of limiting methane gas, which comes with volatile organic compounds that worsen air quality and contribute to smog.
Although some U.S. jurisdictions may appear more cost-competitive to Canadian industry, others have moved long ago to enforce strict methane regulations.
One of those is Colorado, which became the first U.S. jurisdiction to directly control methane in 2014.
Audrey Mascarenhas, chief executive officer of Questor Technology, another open letter co-signer, says she's seen success in that state using her firm's technology to eliminate methane gas at the source by incinerating it in closed containers.
New rules for Alberta would have “a big impact not only on climate change but on air quality,” she said.
Joe Vipond, a board member for another co-signatory, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, also said the organization understands that climate change is a health issue, perhaps the most important public health concern.
He pointed to the Canadian Public Health Association’s 2015 discussion paper on the ecological determinants of health, which cited international research showing very high confidence in a greater risk of injury, disease and death due to climate change-driven heat waves and wildfires.
“We feel very strongly that we need to act on this, and methane is a very important and financially reasonable step for Alberta to be taking,” said Vipond.