Methane emissions from natural gas drilling operations in British Columbia are roughly twice as high as previously thought, according to a new study.
The study points to a growing recognition about the alarming role that methane plays in the climate crisis, undercutting the notion that natural gas and LNG can play a constructive role in reducing emissions.
BC’s methane higher than thought
Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas – more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
The new study finds that methane emissions in British Columbia’s unconventional gas operations are 1.6 to 2.2 times higher than what Canadian government data suggests.
The divergence relates to how the methane is estimated. The lower estimates used optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras, which create vivid images of methane plumes escaping from pipelines, wells, compressor stations and other infrastructure, but also tend to lack precision.
Advancements in methane detection technologies have started to put the problem into greater focus. The new study uses OGI, but combines it with aerial surveys where researchers fly over gas infrastructure and measure methane plumes. The peer-reviewed study was published in Environmental Science & Technology.
They found that three quarters of methane emissions came from four types of infrastructure: tanks (24 percent), pneumatic devices (20 percent), compressor stations (15 percent), and unlit flares (13 percent). The researchers said that “in particular, tank emissions appear much more important than current inventories suggest,” and they added, “unlit flares are a second important gap, bolstering observations from recent helicopter measurements in the Permian basin.”
Those findings echo some similar studies in the Permian basin. Environmental group EDF has conducted aerial surveys of the Permian, producing a litany of alarming findings about oil and gas operations. EDF has found that storage tanks and unlit or malfunctioning flares in the Permian are a huge source of the problem – a similar conclusion found in BC. In addition, it isn’t always the largest industry footprints that are the problem, as many marginal sites are leaking tons of methane. As a result, EDF states that a general rule of thumb is that “more equipment equals more emissions.”
On one level, the findings undercut claims about BC and Canada’s oil and gas industry. “[T]he aerial survey found significantly larger sources and many times greater total emissions than the prior [optical gas imaging] survey…and imply that policy and regulations that rely on OGI surveys alone risk missing a significant portion of total emissions,” the authors wrote.
BC has set a goal of cutting methane emissions by 45 percent by 2025, from a 2014 baseline, which the province and the industry claim puts BC at the forefront. “B.C. is a world leader in reducing methane emissions,” the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers states on its website.
But the higher-than-expected methane emissions documented in the new study undercut that claim and also make the province’s emissions goals much more difficult to achieve.
“It’s a huge problem.”
“It’s a huge problem, especially since the province is hell-bent on producing fracked gas, which is essentially methane,” Tom Green, policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation, told BC-based the Tyee, which initially reported the findings. “Actually the problem is worse than we think and we’re building more of it.” He added that the findings are a “smoking gun” as it relates to the natural gas industry’s role in driving up global methane emissions.
Even more damning is the rush to export natural gas in the form of LNG from Canada’s Pacific Coast, which would likely exacerbate the problem. The massive LNG Canada project – a joint venture led by Shell, Petronas, PetroChina, Mitsubishi and Korea Gas – is currently under construction, which is expected to require a doubling of fracking activity in the province.
In addition, while some proposed LNG projects have been cancelled or delayed, due volatile market conditions globally, others remain on the drawing board. Just days ago, a new $10 billion project called Ksi Lisims LNG was put forward by The Nisga’a Nation along with corporate partners.
LNG as a climate villain
But the findings in BC point to a larger problem. For years, LNG has been billed as a climate solution, due to the fact that it burns cleaner than coal. However, that claim is increasingly out of step with the data, and higher-than-expected methane leaks suggest that the climate impact of natural gas operations is much larger than is often advertised.
In June, the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) published a months-long investigation of oil and gas infrastructure in Europe, a first-of-its-kind survey of leaking methane on the continent. Europe does not have a large upstream oil and gas production profile, but it does have an enormous network of pipelines, storage tanks, and LNG import terminals. The videos published by CATF depict massive plumes of methane leaking from infrastructure that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye.
LNG markets received a shock last year when a major deal between France’s Engie and an LNG project in Texas fell apart over concerns about methane.
But the significance of the findings from Europe, BC, and elsewhere is that the disastrous leaks of methane is not a problem that is unique to the Permian basin, where images of flares and methane leaks have become well-known. Instead, methane leakage appears to be a problem endemic to oil and gas infrastructure as such. As EDF stated, more equipment equals more emissions.
The industry cannot ignore this problem. On July 21, Japan announced new 2030 climate targets, which call for a cutting LNG use nearly in half. As the largest LNG consumer in the world, the impact could roil LNG markets. The overarching motivation is to slash greenhouse gas emissions, underscoring the notion that LNG is increasingly viewed as every bit of a climate problem as coal or oil.