Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault proposed regulations Tuesday that would help Canada cut back on emissions of methane in the oil and gas industry, a powerful greenhouse gas.

He made the announcement alongside John Kerry, the United States’ special presidential envoy for climate, at this year’s United Nations climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The pair said Canada and the U.S. will work together to curb emissions of methane — which is 86 times more powerful than carbon for the first 20 years it exists in the atmosphere — in both countries.

The move comes a year after the two nations signed onto a global methane pledge, where each country vowed to cut emissions 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. Guilbeault has said Canada will take that further and reduce its methane emissions by at least 75 per cent below 2012 levels by 2030.

“We are the fourth-largest producer of oil and gas. So we have a big responsibility, but it's also a big challenge. There are a number of other advantages to doing this: it will obviously improve our environment, it will help to improve air quality, it will help to reduce flaring, to reduce venting and to reduce other environmental impact[s] of methane,” Guilbeault said at the climate conference, also known as COP27.

“And in a world of often intractable, complex … complicated problems, this one is not.”

Canadian Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and John Kerry, the United States' special presidential envoy for climate, at COP27. Photo by John Woodside

Methane makes up about 13 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions and 21 per cent of the oil and gas sector’s total emissions. When oil is extracted, natural gas is flared and vented to release methane that builds up underground. The greenhouse gas also leaks out from equipment during stages of production. The International Energy Agency says addressing methane emissions from oil and gas operations is “essential to combat near-term global warming.”

However, Canada’s plans to export liquified natural gas (LNG) through the Coastal GasLink pipeline will see the country export methane to other countries. Tom Green, a senior climate policy adviser at the David Suzuki Foundation, told Canada’s National Observer in February that along with Canada updating its methane requirements, it shouldn’t be looking to expand exporting the fossil fuel.

There has also been criticism around funding for methane emissions reduction in the past, with Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner Jerry DeMarco finding in a 2021 report that Natural Resources Canada’s $675-million onshore emissions reduction fund wasn’t cutting back on methane emissions, but was serving more like a fossil fuel subsidy.

The proposed changes address all major sources of methane emissions from oil and gas, but there are still questions about reporting and measuring the greenhouse gas.

Proposed regulations address major sources of methane emissions

The proposed regulations address all major sources of methane emissions, said Jan Gorski, program director of oil and gas at the Pembina Institute. Methane leaks at oil and gas sites are a main source of concern, and new regulations mean those sites will need monthly leak checks and repairs, compared to the current rule, which requires checks three times a year.

Also important are rules around replacing pneumatic devices, which run on natural gas, with electric or air-powered substitutes, said Gorski. Pneumatic devices are widely used in the oil and gas industry to control levels, temperature and pressure at sites, often when electrical power isn’t available. The new regulations say “all pneumatic pumps and controllers at oil and gas facilities would be required to be non-emitting or captured,” but does not get into specifics on how the gas would be captured.

Gorski said other wins include requiring inspection of inactive oil and gas sites, not allowing venting methane from oil and gas wells and storage containers, and cutting back on flaring by opting to capture the gas instead.

Reporting of emissions still an issue

However, problems with methane in the industry are multifaceted, and the regulations don’t address issues like how emissions are reported.

On Monday, research commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force and the David Suzuki Foundation showed over 100 oil and gas sites in Alberta and Saskatchewan were leaking methane through ineffective flares that had little equipment onsite to capture the gas.

The findings build on previous analysis, such as a 2021 study from Carleton University that found methane emissions in Alberta were up to 50 per cent higher than federal government calculations.

Gorski points to Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson’s mandate letter from last December, which included an agreement to “establish a global centre for excellence on methane detection and elimination.” He said the centre has an important role to play in cutting emissions.

Ari Pottens of the Environmental Defence Fund said the rules are a positive signal. The group did a study of methane emissions from flaring at well sites in Alberta earlier this year and found around 16 per cent of flares wasn’t on emission records, making it hard to say how much methane Canada is releasing into the atmosphere.

“I think that the most important thing for us here is that the government seems to be moving in the right direction on methane. They seem to be wanting to strengthen the regulations in a really meaningful way. And so it's true that reporting is like a massive issue ... so that's a critical piece for us,” he said.

“Which is why we're really looking forward to seeing what the final design regulations look like and how they'll address that major issue.”

— With files from The Canadian Press