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Accuracy of methane leak reporting in Alberta clouds scope for new regulations

A study by the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund found that methane emissions from oil and gas operations in central Alberta, in November, 2016, were 15 times higher than the levels reported to the provincial government.

LARRY MACDOUGAL/The Canadian Press

Methane emissions from oil and gas operations around Red Deer, Alta., in November, 2016, were 15 times higher than the levels that they reported to the provincial government, says a study in the journal, Elementa, released Thursday.

The study, funded by the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), concluded that the producers must regularly inspect their facilities if methane emissions are going to be properly tracked and reduced – a requirement that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) argues would be overly burdensome.

It comes as Ottawa and Alberta are both preparing regulations, and the two governments must determine which rules should apply to oil and gas producers in the province.

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Premier Rachel Notley is reluctant to adopt any methane rules that would provoke an outcry from an embattled industry, sources said this week.

The federal government is due to release its final regulations in the coming weeks. They would require companies to inspect their field equipment three times a year, starting in 2020, and to repair leaky equipment and take other measures to cut methane emissions by 2023. Ottawa has already delayed its proposed implementation by two years.

Alberta's proposed regulations are expected to give companies more leeway to focus their efforts where they expect to find problems, rather than conduct expensive inspections. The New Democratic Party government argues its rules should prevail, but in order to cede jurisdiction in that way, Ottawa requires Alberta's system to be equivalent in scope to the federal one.

The Elementa study was conducted by a team of scientists from EDF, two universities and a private-sector consultant, and is the latest in a series of research efforts to document significantly higher methane emissions than are being reported to the Alberta Energy Regulator.

The team conducted ground-based monitoring of 60 oil and gas production sites around Red Deer, in central Alberta. About 20 per cent of those sites – dubbed "super emitters" – were responsible for 75 per cent of the methane released. However, it was impossible to predict which facilities would be the most problematic, the study said.

As well, 60 per cent of the sites reported to the provincial regulator that they had no methane emissions while the scientists detected emissions from those locations. In total, emissions were 15 times higher than levels reported to the Alberta Energy Regulator, which assisted the study team in its research.

Methane is a powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gas and governments have committed to reduce its emissions as part of the Paris climate accord, which Canada ratified in 2016.

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Major international oil companies have made voluntary commitments to dramatically reduce the release of methane into the atmosphere.

The federal government has set a target of reducing emissions of methane by between 40 to 45 per cent of 2012 levels by 2025, though estimates of the 2012 levels are highly uncertain. Previous studies in Alberta based on airborne surveys have concluded that industry is under-estimating emissions by between 25 and 50 per cent.

A spokeswoman for federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna acknowledged that methane emissions from industry are may well be higher than previously thought.

"We have designed our regulations with this in mind: if the emissions are actually higher than current estimates suggest, then the regulations would have proportionately more impact," Ms. McKenna's press secretary, Caroline Theriault, said in an e-mail.

CAPP vice-president Terry Abel said the industry is willing to work with government to implement regulations that are both flexible and effective. CAPP has estimated that an overly prescriptive approach could cost $1.5-billion over the next five years, while a more outcomes-based model would cut that price tag in half.

CAPP argues for a "site-based" approach, which would allow companies to reduce emissions at each locations with the most cost-effective technology available, rather than being forced to repair every leak.

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EDF – which has worked with governments in Canada and the United States on formulating methane regulations – argues its study provides strong evidence that CAPP's approach would not be effective in reducing emissions.

"This data shows that CAPP's approach would basically be a get-out-of-jail-free card for operators," EDF's director of international affairs, Drew Nelson, said in an interview.

"How can you use CAPP's approach when the reporting doesn't tell what emissions are at a given site in a way you have any real confidence in?"

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