When it comes to the greenhouse gases wreaking havoc with the planet’s climate, carbon dioxide gets most of the attention but methane is finally edging into the spotlight.
Methane is potent – 25 times greater than carbon dioxide – and the gas is responsible for about a third of increased temperatures to date. In Canada, the main source of methane emissions is the oil and gas industry.
Federal and provincial rules to cut methane in the fossil-fuel industry are already working. It’s been a quiet success story. Total oil and gas emissions peaked in 2015 and are down 4 per cent as of 2022, even as production surged. It’s because of the regulations to address methane emitted in operations and from the many places it leaks.
Ottawa’s long-awaited plans to cap total emissions in the oil and gas business are set to be released on Thursday. The strategy relies on cutting methane and on carbon capture.
While some progress has been made on methane, a lot more needs to be done. Scientists, governments and industry agree it can happen at a reasonable cost. Cutting methane globally by 30 per cent by 2030 is a key part of staying close to the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit warming.
The bulk of those reductions can come from oil and gas. Canada’s previous goal was to cut methane by 45 per cent by 2025 from 2012 levels. At the UN climate meeting in Dubai, Canada on Monday released draft regulations to cut methane in oil and gas by 75 per cent by 2030 compared with 2012. The United States and other countries, along with many oil companies, are on a similar track.
Alberta opposes Ottawa’s plans. Premier Danielle Smith called them dangerous, unconstitutional, illegal, arrogant, ineffective and absurd. She further said the new target and timeline were unrealistic. Alberta’s own climate plan, however, includes the same target and timeline.
Beyond Alberta’s predictable response – and the fact the province in 2020 agreed to the previous federal rules – the pledges of governments and industry are in sync. Ms. Smith may shout but there isn’t significant dissent.
The challenge becomes how to measure progress from here on out. Pinning down methane emissions has long been tricky. Ballparking is a fair way to describe methods to date.
In April, the Alberta Energy Regulator estimated the province’s oil and gas methane emissions in 2021 were about 15 megatonnes (CO2 equivalent), down 44 per cent from about 27 MT in 2014. Last week, it had a new estimate: emissions in 2014 were 31.6 MT, not 27 MT, and in 2022 they were 17.3 MT, down 45 per cent. The Alberta regulator noted its data are incomplete and cannot be considered comprehensive.
Yet Ms. Smith’s government translated all this into: Alberta “officially achieved” its target.
This confusion is typical. Historical data are unreliable, based more on estimates than actual measurements. Current data also needs to be better. The Alberta regulator now pegs 2021 methane emissions at about 19 MT. Canada’s official UN submission put them at 26.6 MT.
What appears certain, according to new research from Carleton University published by Nature, is methane has been underestimated. The study suggested Alberta’s oil and gas methane emissions are 50 per cent higher than Canada’s 2021 UN figures. The research used extensive measurements, on the ground and from a plane, along with satellite data.
A goal of cutting emissions by 45 per cent or 75 per cent from some point in the past, when historical figures can’t really be relied on, is problematic. It’s true methane emissions are down, in Alberta and elsewhere, because of smart regulations. That’s good. The goal now should be how much they’re reduced from this point forward.
Relative reductions from the past are easy to advertise. A more solid approach would be to establish an absolute target to reach by 2030.
Ottawa’s proposed methane regulations in general make sense. They build on rules the provinces previously endorsed. They include more inspections and audits. Ottawa also aims for more accurate data. The oil industry appears to be on board. Progress is crucial, for the climate, and for companies and the economy: High-carbon fossil fuels will struggle for sales in the years ahead.
The progress in reducing methane emissions is the start of a climate success story. Making a lot more progress is a necessary pillar of Canada’s climate goals.