You’d think it would be hard to find anything shocking about national greenhouse gas emissions anymore. They’ve been inventoried and catalogued, lumped and split, analyzed from the top down, from the bottom up and from every other angle, ad nauseum. But Barry Saxifrage managed a shocker this week.
Come with me, if you will, and conjure the last time you had a sweeping view over a big Canadian city. And remember the scene — cars and trucks, houses and SUVs as far as the eye could see. Now extrapolate, if you can, imagining all the passenger vehicles and homes from every other big city. Add on all the smaller towns and communities, all the rural acreages and throw in every cabin and pickup hidden in the woods.
All those tailpipes and homes spew less climate pollution than the methane leaking from the oil and gas industry.
“Canada's methane leaks pack a 20-year climate punch equal to five tonnes of CO2 per Canadian,” Saxifrage calculated this week. “That's more than from our cars, trucks, SUVs and homes combined. Methane's short-and-fast heating acts like climate napalm in the first decade or two.”
The more we look, the more leaks we find. They’re called “fugitive emissions” in the business (a curious turn of phrase — wily CH4 molecules with their devious plots, outwitting the most powerful industry ever created).
There are a staggering number of fugitives reported to have escaped into the atmosphere. But, as ridiculous and credulous and regulatory-captured as it sounds, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that we’ve mostly been relying on industry to self-report its fugitive emissions. Satellite observations tell a more incriminating story.
Sometimes it’s an individual case: Last year, the European Space Agency and Karryos made the news for spotting a methane plume at a facility near Lloydminster, Alta. The company and the Alberta Energy Regulator admitted they didn’t know anything about it.
And a much broader analysis of satellite data shows that in both Canada and the U.S., methane leaks have been about 50 per cent higher than reported. That satellite date was the basis for Saxifrage’s calculations, using methane’s 20-year global warming potential.
It’s one of many studies finding a huge spew of unreported methane emissions. In 2021, a study published in Nature looked at 6,650 sites in Canada and found methane emissions at least 1.5 times higher than the official tally. The International Energy Agency figures global methane emissions from the energy sector are 70 per cent higher than reported.
Those may be undercounts. For years, overflights and special cameras imaging specific locations have gotten even worse results. One study near Red Deer, Alta., measured emissions 15 times higher than reported. A group of federal scientists measuring methane from fossil fuel facilities across Saskatchewan and Alberta found methane twice as high as the official reports.
"There's uncontrolled methane everywhere," said Tim Doty, a former regulator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Doty used infrared cameras to look at 128 sites in Alberta and Saskatchewan on a trip organized by the David Suzuki Foundation. "I just can't describe the magnitude of the emissions we saw," he said
"It wasn't a problem finding emissions," said Doty. "It was a problem with the number of hours in a day."
When Saxifrage used the satellite findings of 50 per cent above reported levels and plotted methane’s 20-year impact, the oil and gas industry’s climate impact absolutely soared above all other Canadian sectors. The red bar is just fugitive methane detected by satellites. The grey bar on top is the rest of the oil and gas industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.
All that leaking methane is exasperating. “It's not even doing anything,” Saxifrage told me this week. “It’s not like we’re heating our houses with it. It’s just crappy equipment trashing the planet.
“Industry could fix it without losing money.” The cost-effectiveness is a common view, even within the energy sector because methane is basically natural gas. If industry would plug the leaks or install better gear, it could sell the product and recoup the cost of rounding up those wily fugitives.
It’s all the more exasperating because methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas and it’s flooding into the atmosphere. Scientists aren’t entirely sure why the levels are spiking so dramatically. The fracking boom is one cause. But it doesn’t account for all the increase. One worrying theory is that we’ve hit a temperature threshold that’s thawing frozen carbon stores or causing wetlands to spew methane earlier and faster than expected.
But we do know that about 40 per cent of human-caused methane comes from the energy sector. That’s something industry can control and there is a significant effort underway to regulate the problem. Alongside a broader energy transition off fossil fuels, it’s a quick way to triage some of the short-term effects of methane.
By the end of this year, Canada will be tabling new methane regulations and gathering feedback on a plan for a 75 per cent reduction by 2030. The David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment have banded together with Environmental Defense Fund and the Clean Air Task Force to push for strong regulations and mobilize public pressure while the new rules get finalized.
“The draft 2030 regulations are coming out soon and we will be encouraging the public to push for ensuring they are strong,” says David Suzuki Foundation’s Tom Green.
Green highlights a number of areas where public pressure will be crucial. Monitoring is a key one. Under the current methane regulations, “some of the monitoring was near useless,” says Green. “There is a clear gap in regulators’ ability to assess if the regulations are working and if Canada is on track to meet its methane reduction target.”
Enforcement is another. The coalition of groups notes, “For example, regulators in Alberta report nearly 30 per cent of operators are out of compliance with the region’s pollution standards, yet there have been zero penalties for violating these standards. And Saskatchewan doesn’t require companies to monitor inactive wells for pollution, yet one recent study found inactive sites are responsible for nearly half of the region’s pollution.”
We have some decent examples of stronger monitoring and enforcement that Canadians can press our governments to match. The Pembina Institute’s Jan Gorski points to the Alberta Peace River Rules, which are “very strong and nearly eliminate methane, but not widely known about. They only apply to a small part of Alberta, though.” And the new American draft rules have already been made public. They are “very strong,” says Gorski, who anticipates “final rules around the end of year.”
Colorado and New Mexico have been much tougher on rule-breakers. New Mexico is aiming for a 98 per cent gas-capture rate — five oil and gas producers were fined $275,000 just days after failing to comply with the state’s rules.
Money talks. We hear alot about how it shouldn’t be free to pollute but companies aren’t charged any carbon tax on all that fugitive methane — surely one of the most egregious examples of using the atmosphere as an open sewer. (B.C. is considering applying carbon pricing to methane emissions.)
Nor did the feds put any funding in the budget for their much-touted “Centre for Excellence on methane detection and elimination.” It was part of the ministers’ mandate letters from the prime minister two years ago. “We need a co-ordinated approach to measuring methane emissions in Canada,” says Gorski. “There is lots of good work being led by government, academics and industry, but we need a centre to bring it together.”