New research reveals climate blind spot in Canada’s oil and gas industry

New research reveals climate blind spot in Canada’s oil and gas industry
New research reveals climate blind spot in Canada’s oil and gas industry

The Canadian government is likely overlooking a major source of climate pollution. Surface vent currents and gas migration (types of underground leaks from oil and gas wells) can release large amounts of methane, but new research suggests neither the government nor companies know how much.

Canada has committed to reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by 75 percent by 2030 to combat climate change. However, inadequate data and inaccurate estimates of oil and gas leaks make it increasingly difficult to say whether this goal will be met.

New research shows that oil and gas well spills in Alberta and British Columbia could account for between 2% and 11% of the industry’s emissions. This huge range means policymakers cannot reliably know how this problem compares to other sources of emissions, making it nearly impossible to set priorities or enact regulations.

Why so much uncertainty?

Government agencies make assumptions to estimate emissions from pollution sources because there are so many gaps in the data. Each agency uses a different set of assumptions that produce very different results. The researchers used all of these assumptions and added additional plausible assumptions to better understand the true extent of the problem. They found that these variables can affect emissions levels up or down by as much as 50%.

The main questions that lead to uncertainty include:

  • How much gas flows from these sources?
  • Were the spotlights repaired in time?
  • When did gas leaks first occur?

In addition, the researchers found that most of these emitters are difficult to detect by aircraft surveys, which are now commonly used to detect methane emissions. Although these sources emit a significant amount of methane in total, each individual source is often too small to be detected by aerial surveys. This means that ground-based survey techniques (such as infrared cameras) remain critical for detecting and quantifying these emissions.

This research makes it clear that regulators must require accurate measurement of these sources so that we can track our progress towards our climate goals.

Use research

These findings highlight the extent of our knowledge gap. Oil and gas operators and policymakers are in a bind because we have no idea how big the problem really is. For some sources of methane emissions, we have reliable information about their size and significance. For example, we know that the top three sources in Canada are typically compressors, heavy oil vents and storage tanks, making them targets for rapid mitigation.

They are the largest source of oil and gas-related methane emissions in Canada

However, once we get past the first sources of emissions, it is hard to know what deserves policy priority or what should require the most attention from producers. But we do have a plan of action. Canada can build on its current monitoring of these emissions by improving the quality of reported data and increasing testing frequency to ensure these sources are accurately captured in pollutant inventories. This will be necessary to meet Canada’s 75% reduction target. Examining these methane sources will help effectively prioritize the steps and actions that will ensure we meet our climate goals.