High-impact, low-profile: Reducing methane emissions

Not all greenhouse gases (GHGs) are created equal. Given that methane is a potent but short-lived greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide, reducing methane emissions will yield faster-acting effects to mitigate global warming. Here’s how Canada’s oil and gas industry is reducing emissions, what the industry will do next and how other methane-emitting industries can follow suit.

Methane is a low-profile GHG that sneaks in under the radar with an often-forgotten but heavy-hitting potency more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide (over a 100-year horizon). Interestingly, methane persists in the atmosphere for much less time than carbon dioxide — but its capacity for thermal energy absorption traps 70 times more heat over a 20-year period.

In short, methane can quickly dish out some serious damage.

Unfortunately, we are serving up some serious methane emission internationally. In recent years, methane emissions have jumped dramatically, tracking with worst-case scenario trajectories for GHG emissions. In reaction to these increases, and with rising awareness of the high-impact strategies to mitigate global warming by reducing methane emissions, emphasis has been placed on reducing methane emissions across multiple business sectors.

Canada’s oil and gas industry

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, upstream oil and gas facilities, which include production, extraction, processing and associated pipeline transportation facilities, are the largest methane emitter, accounting for approximately 44 per cent of Canada’s methane emissions.

Major sources include intentional venting or flaring of natural gas as a part of a facility, wellsite operations and unintentional leaks occurring at facilities’ pumps, compressor seals and valves.

However, with big impact comes big opportunity. As a major emitter, Canada’s oil and gas industry is rising to the challenge of reducing methane emissions. There have been many recent and significant developments in processes and technologies aimed to reduce GHG emissions in the oil and gas industry, partially driven by recent legislative changes and recognition that big reductions are required to address a big issue.



Methane emission sources in Canada

Methane emission sources in Canada

New regulations

In Canada, new federal and provincial regulations are expected to reduce 20 million tonnes of methane emissions by 2030, which, by current emission rates, is equal to taking about five million passenger vehicles off the road each year. The new directives include Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Regulations Respecting the Reduction of Methane and Other Volatile Organic Compounds (released in late 2018), and provincial regulations released by British Columbia (Drilling and Production Regulations), Alberta (mainly within Directive 60 Upstream Petroleum Industry Flaring, Incinerating, and Venting regulations) and Saskatchewan (Oil and Gas Emissions Management Regulations). These regulations are leading the way; many regulatory jurisdictions all over the world look specifically to Alberta’s directives, including the timelines, methods for implementation, targets and scope, as an effective and sustainable model for reducing methane emissions.

Regulations are not the only driving force propelling oil and gas companies toward lower methane-emitting and less carbon-intense production facilities. Producers are showing a strong increase in concern over their environmental impact as stakeholders question organizations on social responsibility and accountability. The market demand for reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, including methane, is prompting more efficient facilities in terms of energy and fuel gas usage and, in some cases, improved maintenance and operational costs.

 

Future steps

Both mandated and non-mandated methane reduction initiatives are rolling out across the oil and gas sector, and the Canadian industry and its regulators have taken substantial strides to seize the opportunities for high-impact reductions and a position themselves as a global leader in sustainable energy production. However, methane and other greenhouse gases are still entering the atmosphere and we are still charting a course toward a future with massive climate change impacts and the need for paralleled reductions in methane emissions. What needs to happen next?

1. Further reductions in the oil and gas sector

The Canadian oil and gas industry invests in sustainably producing natural resources. There are industry-funded organizations, including, for example, the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association and the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada, which are working on research projects and educational programs aimed to reduce methane emissions. Within the next five years, we expect to see new technologies, best management procedures and improvement to existing processes and technologies that will come of the many ongoing research projects.

A few of the GHG-reducing technologies that are being implemented and further developed within Canada’s oil and gas industry include:

  • Solar-powered pumps and facility equipment
  • Capture and routing of vented “waste gas” from natural gas production facilities to fuel compressor engines
  •  Advanced and more frequent leak detection technologies and assessments
  • Electric-, rather than fuel-, powered facilities (pumps, pump-jacks, compressors)
  • Instrumentation powered by instrument air rather than gas
  • Routes for “waste gas” to be efficiently combusted when amounts are too low to keep a flare ignited

 

2. Oil and gas encouraging reductions in other sectors

Other sectors produce methane and are launching initiatives to reduce emissions. Like oil and gas, these sectors are making strides but there remains an anticipated market for impactful reductions of methane and other greenhouse gases. Agriculture and landfills are good examples.

Agriculture: Around 40 per cent of agricultural methane emissions come from ruminant digestion. Current research improving ruminant diets and altering digestive microbial populations to reduce methane production suggests possible methane emission reductions up to 10 per cent immediately and 60 per cent as testing and research are further developed over the next 10 years.

Landfills: In addition to the widespread use of municipal composting programs, which produce CO2 instead of methane (like landfills), there has been a big push to capture methane emissions and divert them to energy recovery facilities that generate electricity. There is also a lot of research going into the use of biosolids in landfills, which can reduce methane emissions up to 90 per cent. These technologies are expected to be further developed and more highly regulated within the next decade.

Overall, there is a very optimistic outlook for a significant reduction in methane emissions across multiple sectors within Canada. Although the Canadian emissions output, compared to the global emissions, is relatively small (~1.5 per cent of global emissions), improved inventories and technologies in the oil and gas sector, as well as other industries, will reduce Canada’s footprint. For Canada to continue as a leader in climate change initiatives and sustainable resource development, we need to act rapidly to reduce emissions of methane, the rapid-acting greenhouse gas.