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Why Is Trudeau Blowing His Chance to Curb Dangerous, Climate-Warming Methane?

The facts and solutions are readily available, but our pipeline-loving PM stalls.

Andrew Nikiforuk 7 Jun

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Here’s what the Trudeau government definitely knows about the science of methane.

The gas accounts for more than one-quarter of all global warming, and reliable data from satellite and airplane surveys show that emissions are increasing, largely from the oil and gas industry.

In Canada, methane now accounts for approximately 15 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The bulk of that pollution comes from the oil and gas industry, but that’s a gross underestimate because industry does its own self-reporting.

Spewing more methane into the atmosphere is like dumping gasoline on a campfire, because the gas is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a climate destabilizer over a 20-year period.

Moreover the light gas often travels with a variety of toxic compounds, including radon hydrogen sulfide, toluene, xylene and benzene.

It also contributes to the formation of what scientists call tropospheric ozone, or smog. Ozone not only harms plants and reduces crop yields, but can also damage the lungs and is a public health hazard.

For Trudeau, methane should have been a politician’s dream. Reducing one tonne of methane emissions over a period is like eliminating more than 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The solutions, which are all about fixing leaks or stopping venting, are economic, technically well-known, conserve a natural resource (methane), and create jobs.

In fact, any government serious about climate change would tackle methane first, because methane reductions not only deliver a bigger bang for the buck in the messy field of climate change but also solve other problems.

Now, you’d think a country with a big greenhouse gas problem and a terrible record of doing anything about it would jump at the chance to expend little effort and dollars to effect big change.

But not Canada. And not Trudeau.

Last month the Trudeau government did another one of its famous back steps on climate change and delayed the implementation of rules to curb methane leaks in the oil and gas industry by another three years.

In so doing, Trudeau broke a 2016 promise with the Obama administration to reduce methane emissions by 40 to 45 per cent at 2012 levels. Trudeau planned to implement the regulations in 2018 with full phase in by 2020. Now they won’t fully come into effect until 2023.

The federal government justified the delay by saying it would give industry more time to adjust and budget for the regulations to fix and repair leaks.

But that’s bullshit. After the Trump administration dismantled rules and regulations to control methane in the oil patch, Trudeau chose to follow Trump and delay, too.

He promised not to behave that way. Last year during a Calgary speech, Trudeau vowed that if Trump stepped back from climate action, the U.S. retreat would create an “extraordinary opportunity” for Canada to strengthen its commitments and move forward. But that was last year.

In delaying action in Canada, Trudeau played Neville Chamberlain to the carbon-heavy Trumposaurus.

Trump, of course, loves methane and hates regulations because they often restrain the self-serving behaviour of the rich and powerful such as the Koch brothers. (The oil refinery barons spent hundreds of millions fighting climate change and have secured a voice in the White House.)

In the last three months the Trump administration cancelled a requirement to report on methane emissions because oil and gas companies complained that they added paperwork and costs.

Trump also ordered a review of an Obama rule that would have limited methane emissions at new oil and gas drilling sites.

And his government issued a 90-day stay to halt federal methane leak detection and repair requirements scheduled to take full effect on June 3. He also said he would soon propose to extend the stay indefinitely.

So, here’s what Canada is now going to delay or simply ignore in the world of methane leaks and venting.

Hundreds of thousands of controllers and pumps designed to dump or vent gas into the atmosphere account for more than half of vented emissions from Canada’s oil patch. The industry uses gas-driven pneumatic devices to regulate valves and the flow of gas at remote oil and gas facilities because they are a cheap power source. Most of the devices are designed to vent methane.

A typical Alberta well site sports an average of three pneumatic controllers and 1.2 pumps, emitting the greenhouse gas equivalent of 20 cars. Oil and heavy oil sites leak or vent the most methane.

A recent study by Environmental Defence found that “the actual emissions at oil and gas facilities from pneumatic devices are 60 per cent higher than estimates used to compile Canada’s [greenhouse gas] inventory.”

In fact the volume leaking from pneumatic devices in Alberta alone over a one-year period, 490 kilotonnes, could heat more than 200,000 homes.

The good news is that whenever industry replaces a high-venting pneumatic controller with a low-venting one, it can reduce methane emissions by 81 per cent.

Electric pumps (solar-powered) can replace pneumatic ones with 100 per cent methane reductions. Industry can also capture vented gas from pneumatic devices and use the methane on site as a fuel source, too.

But Canada won’t be doing that for another three years, and when we do we’ll be regulating methane in a piecemeal manner.

Due to the weakness of Trudeau’s regulations, thousands of small compressor and dehydrator sites that leak less than 60,000 cubic metres a year will be exempt from the rules.

(Alberta has its own plan to reduce methane emissions by 45 per cent, but don’t hold your breath: it will be administered by a dysfunctional agency largely funded by industry, hated by landowners and run by a former energy lobbyist.)

Canada will also ignore for another three years the massive methane venting of heavy oil operations.

In just 11 Alberta townships alone, oil and gas companies dump more than five million cubic metres of methane into the atmosphere every year.

In another 72 townships, industry vents between one and five million cubic metres of methane a year.

The problem has been so noteworthy and troubling that industry researcher Bruce Peachey has given talks and written articles entitled “Heavy oil methane: Still venting after all these years.”

As Peachey has noted, the heavy oil/bitumen industry promised to do something about its methane vents 15 years ago, but didn’t.

Whenever heavy oil producers choose to capture methane venting from cases, tank tops or even trucks, they stop poisoning crops and people as well as destabilizing the climate.

But thanks to fickle provincial regulators and petrolized political leaders like Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, there is only one meagre example of change in the heavy oil business: Shell’s former Cliffdale operation.

Several years ago the bitumen operation discovered that vent volumes were higher than expected — a typical and overwhelming industry problem, says Peachey. Nearby rural residents in Peace River, Alberta were getting fumigated with hydrocarbons.

Shell then spent $40 milllion to plug leaks and saved nearly $4-million worth of methane a year. It even used the conserved methane as a fuel source to boil steam to produce bitumen.

The case proves that heavy oil methane venting can be plugged, said Peachey, “if a company is motivated to do so.”

“Shell has shown you can, and it didn’t cost them that much. So what does that mean? It really means that you have to include the vent gas capture as part of the total economics of the oil production. And that’s what Shell does. They say, we are not going to produce oil unless we are cleaning up our mess at the same time. It’s not a matter of technology, it’s totally based on motivation.”

Peachey added that industry has frequently fudged the scale of the heavy oil venting with wacky standards on measurements “big enough to drive a Volkswagen through.”

“There is a lot of potential for the numbers to be biased, for the numbers to not be what is actually being vented, and there is a lot of incentive for them not to get to where they would have to do anything about it.”

Next comes the venting from hydraulic fracking, a growing source of methane pollution in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The amount of methane flared or vented from wells has increased nearly fivefold since industry deployed multi-stage fracking operations nearly a decade ago. In fact U.S. researchers now estimate that “the greenhouse gas footprint for shale gas is 22 per cent to 43 per cent greater than that for conventional gas.”

It all stems from the nature of hydraulic fracturing, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator: “It takes longer to recover load fluids and clean out wells in these operations, resulting in greater flare volumes and longer flaring durations than with vertical wells and wells that are not fractured.”

But the new federal methane regulations, when they come into effect, exempt Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. Why?

Because provincial oil and gas regulators, largely funded and controlled by industry, are allegedly dealing with the problem. But landowners say that’s nonsense.

Next comes ongoing methane leakage from tens of thousands of badly sealed inactive wells, abandoned wells as well as active ones.

Regulators don’t have a good handle on the scale of this multibillion-dollar liability. They aren’t doing the monitoring on abandoned wells or even requiring that industry address the liabilities of inactive wells in a timely fashion.

University of Calgary researchers recently found “that 607 unremediated ‘serious’ leaking wells in Alberta and B.C. contribute more than three-quarters” of the methane volume emitted from surface casing vents.

As things stand now, regulators gauge the seriousness of leaks from well sites based on rate of methane leakage as opposed to its impact on water, atmosphere, vegetation or animal and human health.

Last but not least the Trudeau government doesn’t want to deal with the giant elephant in the room: the under-reporting of methane emissions in the nation’s oil patch.

Remember how the oilsands industry once claimed that it was clean, green and world class? That fake news story was based on self-reporting or industry estimates of its own pollution.

But when scientists went into the field and measured pollution over four oilsands facilities in real time from airplanes and satellites, they found that bitumen miners actually emitted two to four-and-a-half times more volatile organic compounds than they had reported.

Such compounds can produce ozone, a greenhouse gas that can harm human health. (A separate study on greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands is in the works.)

The consistent story of under-reporting pollution in the oil patch applies to methane, too. For years B.C.’s former minister of natural gas development, for example, claimed that the province’s 20,000 oil and gas wells didn’t leak and that industry’s fugitive emissions were the smallest in North America.

Not trusting government hubris, the David Suzuki Foundation partnered with the FluxLab at St. Francis Xavier University and took measurements at 1,600 well sites. They found more inaccurate estimates and huge under-reporting.

Their peer-reviewed study found that methane emissions from B.C.’s shale gas basins are probably at least 2.5 times higher than provincial government estimates.

In the end Trudeau’s decision to delay tackling an immediately fixable problem probably 2.5 times worse than provincially reported is another vote to destabilize the climate and to appease a petro tyrant south of the border.*

It all prompts a question: What’s worse — an orange-haired U.S. caudillo who denies climate change science and openly pimps for the fossil fuel industry, or a Tofino surfer dude who acknowledges the threat of climate change but approves bitumen pipelines, embraces liquefied natural gas projects dependent on hydraulic fracking, and then delays any meaningful action on fixable methane leaks?

The answer is self-evident: it is the deceiver and the hypocrite.

But that’s been Canada’s real position on battling climate change for decades.

*Story corrected June 7 at 12 p.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics, Environment

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