The province committed to a 45 per cent reduction in methane emissions by 2025, but an explosion in fracking to feed a growing LNG industry has experts saying that goal is not achievable
Flaring at an Encana gas pad near the Tower Gas Plant in northeast B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal
There are currently seven liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects in various stages of proposal, planning and construction in B.C.
To feed those facilities, B.C. is anticipating an explosion in the amount of fracking in the province’s northeast at the same time as it’s trying to get a handle on one of the gas industry’s worst climate offenders: methane emissions.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a climate warming potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide on a 100-year timescale. Global efforts are underway to curtail methane emissions, and as a part of Canada’s international commitments, B.C. set a goal of reducing provincial methane emissions 45 per cent by 2025, compared to 2014 levels.
But trying to meet that target at the same time as pursuing B.C.’s LNG ambitions sounds like wishful thinking to scientist John Werring, who ran for the Green Party in Surrey Centre in the last federal election.
“With the anticipated amount of fracking proposed over the next 10 or 15 years to supply the liquid natural gas industry, I don’t think we will ever catch up,” Werring told The Narwhal.
LNG Canada, the province’s largest LNG facility currently under construction in Kitimat, is expected to double fracking operations in B.C., according to the province. The much smaller proposed Cedar LNG facility is expected to require 5,276 new wells to be fracked in northeast B.C. over the next 30 years, based on calculations from the Wilderness Committee.
But just how great of a challenge it will be to contain methane emissions from growing fracking operations is difficult to ascertain because of a lack of monitoring and baseline data.
Data gaps plague study of methane emissions in B.C.
Just how bad fugitive methane emissions are in B.C. is notoriously difficult to pin down.
“We’re pretty shocked at the lack of data and research that has been done,” Sonia Furstenau, Cowichan Valley Green Party MLA, told The Narwhal.
“You can’t properly measure or understand outcomes of efforts being undertaken if you’re not doing that data collection, research and analysis right.”
In 2017, Werring used infrared cameras and gas detection equipment to estimate methane emissions from oil and gas operations in B.C.’s Peace Region and found they were 2.5 times greater than the province reported.
At the time of Werring’s research, B.C. reported 78,000 tonnes of annual fugitive methane emissions across the province.
But Werring and his team documented 111,800 tonnes of fugitive emissions were released from production in the Montney basin alone, where roughly 55 per cent of the province’s oil and gas activity occurs.
Werring said there are still major gaps in knowledge when it comes to understanding methane emissions in B.C., including who the biggest emitters are.
“We don’t know what needs to be done to control these emissions to the degree necessary to save the planet because we’re going to continue to drill and drill to create more and more wells,” said Werring, adding inactive and orphan wells are big contributors to methane leaks.
B.C. methane research team assigned to tackle knowledge gaps
In the spring of 2019, the B.C. government formed a methane research group — which includes the BC Oil and Gas Commission, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Pembina Institute, among others — to help the province prepare to meet its targets.
Earlier this month, after one year of strategizing, the team announced the details of a research plan aimed at getting a clearer picture of the methane emissions problem.
Ken Paulson, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the BC Oil and Gas Commission, called the plan a “significant milestone” in a statement.
Karen Tam Wu, B.C.’s regional director for Pembina Institute, told The Narwhal the research team will review discrepancies between provincial tallies of methane emissions and what current research shows.
According to the collective’s research plan, comparing studies on methane emissions can be challenging as definitions differ.
For example, “fugitive emissions” are defined by the federal greenhouse gas reporting program as all sources of flaring, venting and leakage emissions. The province only categorizes unintentional leaks as “fugitive emissions” and categorizes vented emissions as intentional.
One of the research group’s goals is to come to a better understanding of methane emissions and where they are being emitted, Tam Wu said.
B.C.’s methane emissions amounted to an estimated 8.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017, according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. That’s the equivalent of 1,724,724 vehicles on the road for one year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions calculator. The vast majority of those emissions, according to the research group, are from industrial venting of gases and leaky infrastructure.
Tam Wu said part of the research group’s plan is to identify better technologies and methods to deal with the problem, adding B.C. is ahead of Alberta and Saskatchewan, which rely on many older oil and gas wells for production.
But the LNG industry will require the drilling of thousands of new wells for fracking.
“We’re encouraging things like creating incentives for zero-emissions equipment, not just low carbon or low emissions,” she said.
David Hughes, an earth scientist and one of the nation’s top energy experts, said it’s possible to cut methane emissions by 45 per cent through better technology and rigorous regulation, but doubling gas production for LNG exports will mean those methane emissions reductions will only amount to a 22.5 per cent cut overall.
“If you’re going to increase production because of LNG exports, then the total amount of methane you have to reduce becomes larger,” he said.
Hughes added that even if the current methane emissions numbers were accurate, they would still be significant from a climate perspective — and a growing LNG industry will only make things worse.
“It really makes reducing emissions to the level they want hopeless, even if every [other] part of the economy goes to zero.”
In an email to The Narwhal, a spokesperson for the BC Oil and Gas Commission wrote that as regulators of industry, they have many experts to contribute to the effort “to ensure robust regulatory oversight.”
The commission estimates $2 million will be spent over the next two years on research.
This is in addition to the federal government’s new $750-million emissions reduction fund, to be distributed among the provinces and territories. B.C. is the first province to announce a research collaborative.
LNG Canada’s director of corporate affairs, Susannah Pierce, told The Narwhal in an email that the company acknowledges reducing methane emissions is “a critical part of managing climate change” and supports the research.
Coastal GasLink declined to provide comment to The Narwhal. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, also a member of the research collaborative, both referred The Narwhal to the BC Oil and Gas Commission for comment.
Methane emissions not under carbon tax
Werring said he isn’t convinced of the usefulness of new guidelines that came into effect Jan. 1 under B.C.’s drilling and production regulations to more accurately detect leaks.
Those rules only apply to new wells, Werring said, while existing wells don’t have to be repaired for at least another three years.
A recent study of B.C.’s well database found 11 per cent of the province’s oil and gas wells were leaking. That study found wells in B.C.’s four major shale gas plays were together releasing 14,000 cubic metres of methane per day.
That is more than double the leakage rate of 4.6 per cent in Alberta.
As The Narwhal previously reported, there are more than 11,000 inactive fracking wells in B.C. that have yet to be decommissioned and cleaned up. There are roughly 7,700 oil and gas wells that are considered dormant, meaning they have been inactive for five consecutive years and are unlikely to return to service.
There are 348 orphan wells across the province, but that number is expected to double this year.
As new wells are drilled to meet LNG demands, the number of unattended wells is expected to rise dramatically.
Werring said modern drill sites can now house up to 20 wells, further undermining the aims of using improved technology to limit emissions.
“Sure, there’s a significant reduction there on each well, but now multiply that by 20. Where’s your savings?”
Werring also criticized the B.C. government for being all too quick to make exceptions for industry in backroom arrangements, especially when it comes to advancing the lauded economic benefits of LNG.
“Industry knows they’re the problem, but they’re not going to bring a solution unless their hands are tied behind their back and they’re forced to walk the plank.”
Methane emissions are exempt from B.C.’s carbon tax, so while some technology exists to prevent leaks, there has been little incentive for industry to clean up aging infrastructure.
In the memorandum of understanding signed between the B.C. Greens and NDP to cooperate in governing B.C., the two parties committed to broadening the carbon tax to capture fugitive emissions. That has not happened yet.
Tam Wu said she is concerned about the potential for certain industry players to receive a free pass when it comes to methane.
She pointed out that LNG Canada received significant government subsidies in the past, including carbon tax exemptions estimated at a value to the company of over $150 million a year.
The methane research group’s work is focused solely on upstream operations — companies that extract or produce oil and gas — meaning facilities like LNG Canada are off the hook as an end-use, downstream facility.
If government wants to reach its methane target, Furstenau said, it needs to stop subsidizing oil and gas.
Political leaders should ultimately accept that oil and gas are non-renewable resources, so money should be put “into what you want to see as your future,” Furstenau said.
“We have a duty and a responsibility to future generations to stop driving climate change at the rate that we have been.”