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A flare stack burns off excess gas at a processing facility near Crossfield, Alta., on June 13. The federal government is set to announce new regulations and funding around methane.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The federal government is poised to announce new regulations and funding around methane – a greenhouse gas that’s 85 times more potent than carbon dioxide – heading into COP28 on Thursday.

These regulations will be the cornerstone of Canada’s COP28 climate plan. They follow the 2021 Global Methane Pledge, a joint agreement in which more than 100 countries promised to cut methane emissions by at least 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030.

Canada’s strategy is more ambitious: It hopes to reduce emissions by 40 per cent to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. It plans to do this by cutting oil and gas sector emissions by 75 per cent.

“They’re very close to being ready,” said Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault about methane regulations. “I would be shocked if by the time I come back from COP, we haven’t announced them.”

Whether Canada will meet these targets depends on two factors, say environmentalists, researchers and industry representatives. Will the regulations be thorough and practical? And will funding be set aside for accurate data collection?

Between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of global warming to date has been caused by methane, said Matthew Johnson, head of the Energy and Emissions Research Lab at Carleton University.

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However, while methane is far more potent, it has an atmospheric lifetime of nine years, compared to the hundreds to thousands of years that carbon dioxide exists in the atmosphere. This means that if methane emissions are cut by 30 per cent by 2030, said Dr. Johnson, the effects will be immediate, and warming would be cut by half a degree by the end of the century.

“This is an unbelievably powerful, big lever we can pull,” he said. “There is nothing else we can do that will get us the same bang for our buck.”

Canada’s methane strategy is focusing on the oil and gas sector, which emits 1.5 million metric tonnes of methane each year, at least 40 per cent of total emissions. Agriculture and landfills make up the rest.

While the reduction goal is ambitious, it is possible, said Tom Green, senior climate policy adviser at the David Suzuki Foundation.

“Methane is the cheapest option out there for quick actions and quick start,” Mr. Green said. “The technology is available off the shelf for most applications.”

New regulations are expected to mandate that the oil and gas industry update infrastructure to prevent methane leakage through valves and pipes. They are also expected to ban – or restrict – a practice called flaring, where companies burn methane byproduct at the wellhead. Instead, they are being encouraged to capture the gas, so it can be cleaned, compressed and sold as natural gas.

Broadly, industry is open to changes, said Tristan Goodman, president of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada. However, updating infrastructure to eliminate leakage is expensive and cannot be done immediately, he said. Each new valve can cost thousands of dollars. Practical timelines are key to success, he said.

He also said that a complete ban on flaring is untenable. Occasionally, for emergency or maintenance purposes, a plant might need to flare. He hopes the regulations will permit occasional flaring.

“It’s difficult, it’s expensive, it’s tough,” Mr. Goodman said about the methane reduction strategy. “But in the same vein, we understand why the government is pursuing this.”

He said meeting the 2030 target is possible, and will be a matter of practical ambition and realistic timelines that do not make Canadian businesses uncompetitive in a global marketplace.

However, the biggest challenge moving forward is data collection, Dr. Johnson said.

Currently, methane emissions are calculated and collected by industry using a “bottom up” strategy. Methane emissions are calculated for each process and piece of equipment, and then multiplied by the number of times these processes are completed or equipment is used.

But research shows that these forecasts vastly underestimate methane emissions.

On Nov. 15, Dr. Johnson and colleagues at the Carleton Energy and Emissions Research Lab published a Nature study showing that methane emissions were 1.5 times higher than official predictions. The data – based on 2021 levels – showed that Alberta’s oil and gas operations emitted 50 per cent more methane than expected. Dr. Johnson is finalizing a study on Saskatchewan’s sector. It is similar to Alberta, he said.

Researchers and environmentalists are therefore hoping that the government will follow through on its 2021 promise to fund a centre of excellence on methane detection and elimination. This centre could reliably collect data based on real-time measurements, independent from industry, Mr. Green said. He calculates that it will cost approximately $75-million over five years.

The federal government has yet to set aside money for the centre of excellence and did not respond to The Globe and Mail’s requests for an interview on methane emissions specifically.

However, Mr. Guilbeault’s office is stressing that the methane strategy is a priority going into COP on Thursday.

“Methane is definitely a priority,” the minister said in a broad interview on COP strategy. “Of all the complicated things we have to do to tackle climate change, this is one of the less complicated.”

With a report from Adam Radwanski

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