The Canadian oil and gas industry can be proud of its environmental record, as shown on this International Energy Agency (IEA) chart above. Even though Canada is a major producer, we rank tenth in the list of countries in terms of total methane emissions and similarly low in methane intensity.
On March 10, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Barack Obama issued a joint statement on climate change pledging to reduce greenhouse gases by:
- Reducing methane emissions by 40 – 45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025 from the oil and gas sector.
- Exploring new possibilities for additional reductions of methane.
The United States ranks second in the chart above, and Canada ranks tenth in methane emissions produced by each country’s oil and gas industry. Hopefully, the leadership of the United States and Canada in reducing emissions will finally encourage other countries, especially Russia, to take similar action. The risk of disadvantaging yourself competitively has always been a stumbling block that prevented much reduction action.
In the past, the Canadian oil and gas industry has pointed to Canada’s low share of global methane emissions, genuine technical difficulties and additional costs that undermine competitiveness as reasons for not taking more action. Given the commitments of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference and the joint announcement by the United States and Canada, additional steps will be more difficult to avoid.
In this article, methane emissions and methane venting are synonymous. Most international organizations use the word emissions, while the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) uses the word venting.
Alberta methane venting
Figure 6 in the AER ST60B: Upstream Petroleum Industry Flaring and Venting Report for 2019 on page 16 shows the downward trend in methane venting volumes as Alberta oil and gas producers have implemented various measures to reduce methane venting. This chart includes vented volumes associated with conventional and SAGD production. It does not include volumes from bitumen upgraders and oil sands mine operations.
Here are some modest actions that Alberta oil and gas producers can implement for various production situations to further reduce methane venting.
Replace venting with flaring
Whenever a flared volume replaces a methane venting volume, the associated greenhouse gas reduction is 95%.
There are still producing locations in Alberta where small flare stacks can be installed at a modest cost. Many dense producing areas exist in Alberta, where vented volumes can be gathered and flared at a modest cost. These areas are shown in the AER ST60B map on page 23. Reducing the minimum volume and cost of flare stacks is a related opportunity that remains to be explored.
Replace venting and flaring with consumption
Whenever a vented or a flared methane volume is consumed instead, the associated greenhouse gas reduction is 100%. Many locations exist in Alberta where these volumes can be gathered and consumed at a modest cost. See AER ST60B, Table 7 on page 13, for a list of high-flaring volume gas plants.
In Alberta, vast rural gas networks, operated by 81 natural gas co-operatives, consume methane. In 2008, the County of Vermilion River won the Emerald Award for Climate Change for gathering and consuming methane that would otherwise be vented or flared. There are more opportunities to supply currently vented or flared methane volumes to natural gas co-operatives for consumption.
Reduce fugitive emissions
Whenever a fugitive methane volume is avoided, the associated greenhouse gas reduction is 100%. There are tens of thousands of pieces of production equipment in Alberta where these fugitive volumes can be avoided.
These two pie charts show a detailed breakdown of Alberta’s oil and gas methane emissions in 2018. The chart on the left shows methane emissions by sub-sector. The Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and AER regulations broadly cover about 75% of total emissions by focusing on upstream venting. These charts exclude oil sands mining and upgrading, downstream refining, transmission, and distribution. The chart on the right shows the breakdown of emissions covered by both regulations by source category. The dashed and solid red outlines indicate sources included in the ECCC and AER methane venting limit overall vent gas limit for existing sites.
The estimates of methane emissions published by the Global Methane Initiative (GMI) for Canada are slightly different from the values in the pie charts above. GMI estimates that the fugitive emissions are almost as much as the reported emission volumes. The differences indicate the difficulties involved in producing these estimates.
For a list of the top 25 Alberta oil & gas producers with their vented volumes, see AER ST60B page 29. I believe every producer can significantly reduce its position on this list with modest measures.
For a more detailed explanation of how to better understand your fugitive emissions, please read AER Manual 016 – How to Develop a Fugitive Emissions Management Program, December 2020.