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
The BC government has set a target to reduce GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions by at least 33 percent below 2007 levels by 2020 and has a long-term target of an 80 percent reduction below 2007 levels by 2050.
According to the BC Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report for 2010, (the latest figures available), fugitive emissions from the energy sector comprised 5,970 kilo tonnes or nine percent of BC’s GHG emissions, up from 8.2 percent in 2007.
That’s the GHG equivalent of adding more than a million cars onto BC’s roads. The growth in GHG emissions from fugitive gases appears to be growing alongside BC’s oil and gas exploration and development programs.
About 607 billion cubic metres of marketable natural gas remain to be discovered in the province. The northeastern BC foothills hold potential for significant additional gas reserves according to the BC Ministry of Energy. In December 2012, land lease and sales alone amounted to more than $30 million. The Conference Board of Canada's newly-published report, The Role of Natural Gas in Powering Canada's Economy, estimates $181 billion (2012 dollars) in investment will occur in the province between 2012 and 2035 - more than $7.5 billion per year on average.
Regulating methane leakage and venting is the responsibility of the BC Oil and Gas Commission. According to an emailed statement from a commission spokesperson Friedrich Hardy, “BC has strong regulations that limit methane emissions from natural gas exploration. Methane emissions are lower in BC than many jurisdictions as provincial regulations require natural gas to be conserved where possible instead of flared and vented, which limits the amount of methane emitted.”
The Oil and Gas Commission require gas facility operators in BC to have a fugitive emissions management plan. Fortis BC (formerly Terasen Gas) has 44,000 kilometers of household distribution pipelines and 4,300 kilometers of the much larger transmission pipelines throughout BC. A search of the company website reveals a Pest Management Plan, but no fugitive emission plan. Spectra Energy meanwhile, reports that they are”currently conducting a study to better understand the sources of our methane emissions.”
No mention of fugitive methane gas in report
BC’s Ministry of Environment (MOE) has published the 2008 report, “Framework for the British Columbia Air Monitoring Network” but the document fails to mention methane or greenhouse gases in the report. MOE also has a mobile air quality monitoring laboratory, measuring smog: nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (from fossil fuels) in various cities and regions (airsheds). However, the northeastern basin is not one of the airsheds where monitoring has been implemented.
In the government’s recently released and hyped 24 -page “BC Natural Gas Strategy”, there is not one mention in the report about controlling or regulating fugitive or leaking methane gases from facilities. In fact, the word “methane” is not mentioned once. However, the province is promising “to establish an airshed monitoring association for the Peace (BC) area.”
“There needs to be adequate policy in place to constrain all sources of emissions from the natural gas sector so that the province can meet its (GHG) targets”, Horne said.
“Those policies aren't in place yet, and it is fair to say that fugitive emissions are part of the gap.”