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Methane pollution from B.C.’s oil and gas industry is 2.5 times higher than provincial estimates state, says a David Suzuki Foundation scientist who personally visited 178 well sites in B.C.’s northeast.© Todd Korol / Reuter

Methane pollution from B.C.'s oil and gas industry is 2.5 times higher than provincial estimates state, says a David Suzuki Foundation scientist whose research tested 1,600 facilities including well sites in northeastern B.C.

A study released on Wednesday by the foundation says that while that number of sites is only about six per cent of the total across B.C., if the results were similar province-wide, the finding could mean the oil and gas sector is the largest source of pollution in the province, outpacing commercial transportation.

John Werring, senior science and policy adviser for the environmental group, said the provincial government's current process of calculating emissions is faulty.

"The process that's in place that requires industry to estimate their emissions is simply that – it's an estimation," he said. "They use very lax and unreasonable assumptions in making determinations on the amount of emissions that they have."

The study was done by researchers from St. Francis Xavier University and the David Suzuki Foundation. Researchers used vehicle-mounted, laser-based instruments to gather methane measurements from 1,600 well sites and oil and gas facilities.

Mr. Werring and a colleague then went to 178 well sites around Fort St. John last August to gather direct measurements of methane pollution over a period of 12 days. The team detected emissions using a gas monitor, infrared camera and even a balloon attached to surface vents to measure the rate and volume of methane they were emitting. Their results showed that more than 40 per cent of the wells and facilities they visited – both abandoned and producing – were emitting methane.

"Methane is the single biggest contributor to the climate-change engine," Mr. Werring said. "There's no reason for these emissions. They can all be managed."

Mr. Werring's study, which conducted ground-based measurements in partnership with St. Francis Xavier University, found that in northeastern B.C.'s Montney Basin alone, more than 111,800 tonnes of methane is released annually.

Currently, the provincial government estimates the number for the entire province at 78,000 tonnes of methane emissions.

Fugitive (unintended) methane emissions have been a significant concern as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and intensive drilling has increased as a method to unlock oil and gas deposits across North America. According to some scientists, unless these methane emissions can be reduced, natural gas is as problematic as coal-fired electricity for the climate.

In response to a request for comment on the study, the BC Oil and Gas Commission referred to the provincial climate-leadership plan, which says the government's climate-action strategy and the implementation of new technology by the natural gas industry has led to a 37 per cent decrease in emission intensity per unit of production since 2000.

"Yet we must still do more," the plan says. "Almost 40 per cent of the natural gas sector's emissions come from non-combustion sources such as venting and leaks. Establishing standards for these processes that will lead in North America will help the sector to curb emissions as operations continue. …

"Our first action for the natural gas sector is a methane emissions reduction strategy. This strategy is targeted at producing real, tangible reductions in emissions, while ensuring the industry remains competitive and has room to grow."

In 2016, the provincial and federal governments committed to reducing methane emissions by 45 per cent. Last August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. president Barack Obama said they would move to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, which is a primary source of the natural gas, along with agriculture and municipal landfills. The United States is the second-largest emitter of methane from the oil and gas industry in the world. Canada is fourth.

Ottawa had planned to put its plan in place between 2018 and 2020, but has pushed back the start to 2020 with full implementation by 2023.

Mr. Werring said the commitment to reducing methane emissions by 45 per cent is a promising start, but that's why accurate tracking is needed.