Oil and Gas Study Shows – Once Again – Industry is Severely Underreporting Methane Emissions

A peer-reviewed scientific study shows that oil and gas methane emissions were 15 times higher than what industry reported in a production area in Alberta. Unaccounted emissions from unpredictable, widespread sources (known as super-emitters) are responsible for much, but not all of the discrepancy. The study suggests these sources could worsen an already bad methane pollution problem in Canada if they go unaddressed. Super emitters can pop up anywhere, at anytime and are often missed by emission inventories, which is why frequent leak monitoring is essential to reduce emissions.

Researchers used ground-based methods to collect site-wide emissions data from 60 wells in Red Deer (an area between Edmonton and Calgary) over a two-week field campaign in October-November of 2016. On average, measured gas wells wasted 3 per cent of the gas they produce – a much larger leak rate than industry reports. Canadian oil and gas production sites were also shown to have a methane problem as bad as the United States.

“The more we measure, the more clearly we see that reported emissions severely underestimate the extent of the methane problem,” said Dr. Daniel Zavala-Araiza, lead author and international scientist with Environmental Defense Fund. “Empirical measurements help improve our understanding of the patterns and characteristics of oil and gas methane emissions and are useful input for making methane mitigation regulations more effective.”

The Red Deer study reveals a wide discrepancy between measured and reported data. Almost two-thirds of wells observed reported zero methane, yet measurements found emissions at those sites. Researchers linked higher emissions most often with older wells and oil-producing wells. The study also sheds light into the 94 per cent of unmeasured/unreported oil and gas methane emissions in the same Red Deer region identified earlier by a Carleton University paper.

Data from the Red Deer study, along with others, underscore the pervasive issue of industry’s underreporting of oil and gas methane emissions in Canada – highlighting the need for strong methane regulations. Significant improvements are also needed to ensure that Canada’s reporting program includes more robust data. Regular measurements are critical, as current reporting relies on estimates of average emissions and do not account for the presence of super-emitters.

Methane is a fast-acting climate pollutant, a driver of local air pollution, and a valuable product when recovered as natural gas. The Federal Government proposed regulations in May 2017 to cut these emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2025. Final federal rules are due out soon and the Government of Alberta is expected to announce its own methane regulations later this year. Even since the 2017 proposal, new science has shown Canada needs to be even more ambitious to reduce methane if governments are going to meet their reduction targets.

“Multiple scientific studies show emissions in Canada are far worse than the oil and gas industry reports,” said International Affairs Director Drew Nelson, Environmental Defense Fund.  “Alberta and Canada need effective methane regulations otherwise Canada risks falling short of its international climate commitments and its gas being seen as dirtier than other lower-carbon gas supplies.” 

This paper “Methane Emissions from oil and gas production sites in Alberta, Canada” published in Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene complements the study undertaken by Matt Johnson of Carleton University and another recently published paper led by Aerodyne Research that measured methane emissions at Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sands sites. Taken together, along with research from the David Suzuki Foundation, the scientific data in Canada to date overwhelmingly shows that measured emissions are much higher than reported emissions.

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