Carbon dioxide, released when carbon-based substances such as wood, coal or gasoline are burned, is often talked about as if it’s the only greenhouse gas. It isn’t. Methane is actually 30 times more potent when it comes to trapping heat. It’s also a main component of natural gas – something Canada produces a lot of, as a fuel and as a byproduct of drilling for oil and gas.
And methane is one more bone of contention between Alberta and Ottawa. When Premier Jason Kenney met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday, the former came armed with five demands; one was for the federal government to accept Alberta’s methane-reduction plan, rather than imposing a tougher federal plan.
The techniques for pulling oil and gas out of the ground often include a lot of waste. If you’ve seen a picture of an oil rig with a controlled blaze of fire coming out of the top, that’s methane being burned away – or flared. More common is the venting of methane during the production process.
Canada’s fossil fuel industry has had some success cutting what are known as fugitive emissions. They peaked at 70 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent in 1998; or about 10 per cent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions at that time. By 2009, fugitive emissions had been cut to 54 megatonnes. Since then, however, no progress has been made.
While carbon taxes and carbon-tax rebates consume the country’s finite supply of political oxygen, methane emissions barely rate mention in public discourse. However, cutting fugitive emissions in the oil patch by a lot, and quickly, is a centrepiece of the federal climate-change plan.
As with other aspects of Canada’s emissions-reduction plans, provinces can choose their own routes – as long as they arrive at the same destination as the federal standard. British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, all producers of natural gas, each decided to make their own rules. B.C.’s oil patch produces four megatonnes of fugitive emissions a year. Saskatchewan emits 15 megatonnes; Alberta’s figure is 33.
Ottawa’s goal is to slash fugitive emissions in the oil patch by at least 40 per cent in 2025 from 2012 levels. That would eliminate 23 megatonnes of GHGs annually, equivalent to shutting down all of Canada’s oil refineries.
The problem is that the three provincial systems all fall short of the federal benchmark, according to an analysis by a coalition of environmental groups. B.C. is closest to meeting Ottawa’s standard, while Saskatchewan is far from it, the report found.
As for Alberta, the report concluded that rules designed under the previous NDP government won’t produce sufficient reductions. However, the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force concluded that Alberta’s rules would result in a 32-per-cent cut. That’s four-fifths of Ottawa’s minimum target.
In this argument between Ottawa and Alberta, is the glass one-fifth empty or four-fifths full? We’d suggest the latter. Agreement should be possible.
That’s what happened last week on the subject of industrial emissions. Ottawa approved Alberta’s provincially designed industrial carbon tax, which falls primarily on the province’s oil industry, as meeting the federal standard for 2020, which means there’s no need for the federal government to bring in its rules. (At the same time, however, because the Kenney government declined to introduce a consumer carbon tax, the federal tax, with its attendant tax rebates, arrives at Alberta gas pumps in the New Year.)
On methane, Alberta says its rules “are stronger and cheaper” than those of the federal government, a claim made in newspaper ads in Ottawa. A report was cited, but it does not appear to support the claim. Alberta appears to be short of the federal target.
Not quite there. But not far from the mark.
The oil patch argues that Canada is already a world leader on methane. That’s true. But it’s also true that a lot of methane is still being released during the production of oil and gas. Problem areas include detection and repair of leaks.
Methane emissions are key to Canada’s climate-change plans, and to the future of the oil business. Lower fugitive emissions will, among other things, allow for rising Canadian oil and gas production over the next decade.
If Alberta further tightens its methane rules, Ottawa will be able to sign off on them. That would be a win-win-win for Mr. Kenney, Mr. Trudeau and the environment.