Failure to account for “fugitive” methane gas could undercut BC's climate change efforts, experts say

A failure to account for “fugitive” gases released accidentally from gas wells and pipelines could have serious repercussions as oil and gas exploration heats up in British Columbia, experts say. Canada’s Pembina Institute is calling for more studies into “fugitive” methane leakage near gas production facilities in British Columbia following a recent study in the US that revealed substantial levels of escaping methane gas.

“We have recommended that the issue of fugitive emissions from shale gas in Canada be studied more closely given the range of conclusions that are being drawn from U.S. studies,” Pembina Institute climate change program director Matt Horne said.

“There is unnecessary uncertainty about the volumes of methane not getting into the pipeline system, and how much of that is flared vs released as methane.”

Methane is the primary component in natural gas and is far more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado in Boulder conducted a series of atmospheric tests last February using ground and aerial based equipment over the natural gas producing fields of Uinta Basin of Utah.

The testing revealed up to four percent of methane leaking from natural gas facilities. A follow-up study using aircraft to measure air quality now reports a much higher rate of methane leakage, up to nine percent of total production.

Environmentalists in the US consider methane leakage rates of below 3.2% to be acceptable. The much higher findings raise alarming questions over the environmental benefits of natural gas, especially in BC where, according to a statement from BC premier Christy Clark, “the natural gas industry is an important revenue generator for British Columbia. With new, undeveloped shale gas deposits in the northeast, there is a real opportunity for growth.”

“They should be doing more to understand how significant fugitives are, in particular given the increase in shale and tight gas, and they need to be doing more to encourage companies to reduce those sources if they are going to hit provincial targets,” Horne said.

Natural gas, which is primarily methane, produces the least carbon dioxide (CO2) of all fossil fuels when burned, making it attractive as an energy alternative to coal or oil. On the other hand, if natural gas is released accidentally or deliberately into the atmosphere as uncombusted methane, it adds substantially to greenhouse gases. One tonne of methane is equal to 25 tonnes of CO2.

According to figures from the BC Oil and Gas Commission, a crown corporation regulating oil and gas exploration and development in the province, BC is home to more than 19,000 gas and oil wells. The vast majority are in northeastern BC. According to Horne, these wells and production facilities are not being monitored for fugitive gases.

“There is no requirement or incentives to monitor and/or study these emissions sources, so it isn't happening”, Horne said.

The BC Oil and Gas Commission has established guidelines for reducing intentional flaring and venting at gas facilities. Additionally, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has published a “Best Management Practice for Fugitive Emissions Management” but neither of these guidelines is backed up with legislation.

The equivalent of adding a million more cars on BC's roads

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