“Super-emitters” in Barnett Shale study were often facilities with broken valves or hatches left open, easy fixes for industry

Measuring fugitive methane emission leaks.

A study released last week by the Environmental Defense Fund comes to the same conclusion as other recent studies: Alberta under-reports the volumes of fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas production. While this sounds ominous, it’s nothing new. And as I reported last Oct., the first step to meeting the provincial and federal target of a 45 per cent reduction in these types of emissions is to put in place a robust measuring program. Once companies identify the leaks, they can take action to fix them.

The EDF sponsored a peer-reviewed scientific study, entitled “Methane Emissions from oil and gas production sites in Alberta, Canada” and published in Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, shows that oil and gas methane emissions from 60 wells in the Red Deer area were 15 times higher than reported. Sample were taken over two weeks in Oct. and Nov. of 2016.

Most of the extra emissions came from “super-emitters,” which are usually facilities like compressor stations or processing plants.

A similar study of emissions from Barnett Shale in north Texas in 2015, also funded by the EDL, discovered that fixes for the leaks were relatively simple.

“A lot of them are a broken valve, or someone leaves a hatch open. It’s human error. And nobody goes back to the site for a month or so,” said researcher Robert Talbot, professor of atmospheric chemistry at University of Houston.

Prof. Kent Fellows, School of Public Policy.

Getting a handle on the volume of fugitive methane emissions in Alberta is not an easy task, according to Kent Fellows, an energy economist with the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

“For other greenhouse gas emissions – non-fugitive emissions, combustion emissions – we’ve got a pretty good sense of ratio between how much fuel is burned and what the greenhouse gas emissions of that are going to be,” he said in an interview for the Oct. column.

“On the fugitive emissions side, it’s much harder to figure out exactly what the emissions look like. There are a number of technologies – ranging from sniffer trucks all the way up to satellite-based equipment – and the expectation [in the near future] is to get a baseline using some combination of these technologies.”

Dr. Daniel Zavala-Araiza says that the more we measure, the more clearly we see that reported emissions severely underestimate the extent of the problem.

“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,” said Zavala-Araiza, lead author and international scientist with Environmental Defense Fund.

The EDL is very emphatic about the requirement for much tougher regulations.

“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,” said EDL International Affairs Director Drew Nelson.

Are we certain the answer is regulations? What about pricing emissions with a carbon tax?

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is a bit fuzzy on the question. Patrick McDonald, director of climate and innovation, says industry is committed to hitting the 45 per cent target, but argues that producers have been reducing emissions for years without prescriptive regulations because the methane makes up 90 per cent of natural gas, which is a valuable resource.

“Industry is right now actively pursuing additional technologies and administering those on new facilities and existing facilities where appropriate,” he said in an interview last fall.

“We want to make sure that all those tools that haven’t been discovered yet are easily available to be applied in the field. We really do need to focus and move funds to further innovation, to further technology development because that is really going to be the mechanism to reduce the emission intensity of the sector.”

Andrew Read, a policy analyst with the Pembina Institute when I interviewed him last fall, says that pricing emissions is the most efficient and cost-effective method because then companies can choose the tools and technologies that fit their operations.

However, until Alberta has better data on emissions, prescriptive regulations may be needed as an interim step.

“What we’re looking at is some enhancements to recognise new technology.  With that new technology we get better measurements and we can actually look to a carbon tax approach that then takes away the requirement to do that very prescriptive sort of regulatory approach,” he said.

The EDF-funded study estimates that on average, measured gas wells wasted three per cent of produced gas, which is much higher than industry estimates, and about the same as the United States industry.

Can we apply that estimate to all of the roughly 300,000 producing oil and gas wells in Alberta?

Who knows? Given the current state of the measurement data, the percentage could be much higher or much lower.

The EDL study simply drives home the point that the place to start is with measurement programs: “Regular measurements are critical, as current reporting relies on estimates of average emissions and do not account for the presence of super-emitters.”

What those might look like will probably have to wait until the Alberta Energy Regulator releases its draft regulations later this year.

In the meantime, the provincial government, the provincial regulator, and industry are diligently working toward solutions that will see Alberta meet its 45 per cent reduction target.