Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Barack Obama are expected to commit their two countries to slash methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by at least 40 per cent as part of a bilateral approach to curb climate change.
In a conference call Tuesday, U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern confirmed that the two leaders will aim for an agreement on several climate initiatives, including stricter standards for heavy-duty vehicles, greater cross-border trade in clean electricity and efforts to reduce the release of methane, which is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a cause of global warming.
Oil and gas producers are already facing pressure to capture the methane that is vented from wells and leaks from field equipment such as pumps and gathering stations. Alberta has announced plans to reduce methane emissions from industry by 45 per cent from 2012 levels by 2025, while British Columbia Premier Christy Clark said last week that her province would match the Alberta effort.
"There are a number of areas of potential co-operation," Mr. Stern said on a call. That includes "a commitment to reduce methane emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025 in the oil and gas sector," he said, adding the two governments may also endorse a World Bank call to end the practice of flaring methane from oil wells that are not connected to gas-gathering systems.
Environment Canada is "examining details" of a plan to regulate methane emissions in the upstream petroleum industry, spokeswoman Caitlin Workman said Tuesday. The former Conservative government promised last spring to introduce such regulations as part of Canada's climate commitment to the United Nations in the buildup to December's Paris summit.
There is widespread concern about the release of methane associated with the drilling, extraction and processing of unconventional shale gas and oil deposits. The full extent of methane emissions is not known, but some scientists argue that, without dramatic reductions, the use of natural gas for power generation is no better than coal from a climate perspective.
The methane issue is a black mark against the shale industry, which has contributed to a boom in North American oil and gas production, but has also sparked widespread resistance to the practice of hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – that is used to extract the resources from shale rock.
The two Democratic president hopefuls – former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders – took stands against fracking at a debate on the weekend, raising questions about the future of the unconventional industry should either be elected. Ms. Clinton listed a number of concerns about pollution and social acceptance, and said there are few places in the United States where fracking should take place, while Mr. Sanders said simply that he does not support the industry.
Methane emissions can be slashed dramatically at a low cost, said Diane Regas, executive director of the U.S.-based Environmental Defence Fund (EDF), which has worked with states and provinces on designing regulations. So long as methane emissions are reduced, natural gas offers clear climate benefits to coal-fired electricity, said Ms. Regas, a former senior staffer at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA is pursuing methane regulations that it says will cut emissions by 40 per cent to 45 per cent, while states such as Colorado and North Dakota have launched their own rules.
A report done for the EDF and the Calgary-based Pembina Institute concluded last year that Canada can dramatically reduce methane emissions at a cost of less than 1 cent per 1,000 cubic feet of gas produced, or the equivalent of $2.50 per tonne of carbon dioxide. While there is considerable uncertainty about the full extent of methane emissions, "we know enough now to act," Ms. Regas said in an interview. "We know enough to know what practices will make a difference."
The Canadian industry welcomes federal and provincial efforts in this area, Alex Ferguson, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said Tuesday. CAPP is urging Ottawa to regulate new facilities to ensure standardization across provinces, but argues that the provinces are better situated to deal with existing sources, first through a voluntary program and then with regulation should the voluntary plan fall short.