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Asleep at the Switch: Canada’s Pathway to 1.5°C Means Phasing Out Natural Gas

There’s a massive gap in Canadian climate strategy that is big enough and serious enough to undercut every other effort to turn the country from a climate laggard to a climate leader: Without a fast, determined effort to phase out natural gas, Canada will not meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement, much less deliver on the increased ambition at the heart of the global accord.

The IPCC’s recent landmark report on pathways to climate stabilization states that “limiting warming to 1.5°C implies reaching net zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050 and concurrent deep reductions in emissions of non-CO2 forcers, particularly methane.” At a practical level, that means phasing out natural gas by mid-century. Why has there been so little attention paid to this necessary course of action?

One reason is that most climate change activists have assumed natural gas could lower GHG emissions by replacing other fossil fuels, by reducing CO2 emissions per unit of energy output. But that’s only worth doing if you ignore or underestimate upstream emissions, particularly fugitive methane from gas production, storage, and distribution and ongoing leaks from abandoned operations. Those emissions are large, and chronically under-reported. Which means that, to reach any reasonable climate target, continuing investments in LNG ports, gas-fired electricity generators, or gas furnaces must necessarily become stranded assets.

Fossil advocates might argue that gas has a future if the associated GHG emissions are subsequently removed from the atmosphere. But carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies do not address methane or nitrogen oxide emissions, and have yet to demonstrate economic viability. While this century will have to see some form of carbon sequestration or drawdown, anything we can do first to eliminate emission sources will deliver the lowest risks and highest returns.

The good news is that eliminating natural gas, starting with an end to oil and gas fracking, simultaneously reduces both carbon dioxide and methane in a big way. Canada is the world’s highest per capita energy user and fourth-highest natural gas producer, according to Natural Resources Canada, and most of that output is fracked. By scaling back and gradually eliminating that demand, Canada will indeed be punching well above its weight on climate solutions.

About 2,000 petajoules (PJ) of natural gas is combusted by buildings and generators in Canada, accounting for more than 100 megatonnes (MT) of annual CO2 emissions. If industrial uses, mainly oil and gas production, are included, the total climbs to 250 MT. The reduced methane releases bring even greater climate benefits.

Industry Lowballs Its Methane Estimates

To really see the scope of the opportunity, you have to appreciate the degree to which the gas industry has lowballed its fugitive methane problem. Government greenhouse gas inventories rely on industry data, but those reports consistently come in far below actual field measurements. One recent study measured ground-level methane concentrations at gas sites near Red Deer, Alberta that “were 15 times higher than total reported emissions.”

“In the context of proposed regulations aimed at reducing methane emissions in the Canadian oil and gas sector by 45%, large discrepancies between actual methane emissions and emissions from currently reported data present a critical challenge,” agreed an earlier report by a Carleton University team. “With unreported emissions in regions like Red Deer accounting for 94% of the total methane emissions, the majority of reductions will need to come from sources that may not yet be identified and/or are not being measured.”

Several other research studies (here, here, and here) find hydraulic fracturing wells release a lot more still. Claims that most of the 45% reduction can be achieved at little or no cost may apply to the venting reported by industry. But the means of reducing the much larger sources of unreported fugitive emissions are not even identified, let alone monitored.

And it gets worse. When a well is capped and abandoned, it can still leak through its casings and the pervious rock overburden into aquifers and the atmosphere. Often, the gas escapes via pre-existing wells.

”The measured wells presented in this paper are likely to be half a century old or older, and the positive flow rates measured at these wells indicate that the methane emissions from these wells may have been occurring for many decades and possibly more than a century,” states one report on abandoned wells in Pennsylvania.

“Therefore, the cumulative emissions from abandoned wells may be significantly larger than the cumulative leakage associated with oil and gas production, which has a shorter lifetime of operation. Worse still is the near certainty that fugitive emissions reported in fracked areas may continue long after the wells are sealed, at rates unknown and unmeasured.”

The Challenge is the Opportunity

The depth of the challenge is also the scope of the opportunity.

The four-fold increase in atmospheric methane emissions since the pre-industrial era is a result of a four-fold increase in the rate of emissions. Unlike CO2, methane breaks down rapidly, creating ozone and water vapour (also a GHG) in the stratosphere. It does not accumulate like CO2 dropping to 10% in 15 years. So if the rate of emission is reduced, there will be a dramatic reduction in the rate of warming and if large enough, actually bend the rising temperature curve downwards.

At current rates, methane produced by human activity accounts for 30% of total GHG radiative forcing. Fossil fuel production, the primary source of increased methane emissions, must be shut down by mid-century in order to stay well below 2.0°C. This will bring about substantial reductions in fugitive emissions, particularly due to fracking. And crucially, the faster we get off natural gas, the fewer new wells that would contribute to protracted and unmitigated leaks.  

More methane is lost to the atmosphere during transmission and storage, before the final product reaches the customer. A 2015 field study in Boston concluded the methane loss rate of “the natural gas system, including transmission, distribution, and end use, was 2.7 ± 0.6% in the Boston urban region, with little seasonal variability. This fraction is notably higher than the 1.1% implied by the most closely comparable emission inventory.” This finding is similar to others. The cost of mitigation is likely prohibitive. Only abandoning natural gas outright will solve the problem.

The gas industry likes to tout renewable and sustainable natural gas. Biogas derived by anaerobic digestion is indeed a low-carbon alternative, but is not the same product as that “natural” gas produced as a fossil fuel product, with its own unique carbon isotope signature.

But even if it isn’t a solution that allows for further natural gas production as we currently understand it, biogas is an important part of a post-carbon future. By producing it from organic waste diverted from landfills and manure piles, companies can deliver a truly clean fuel and avoid methane emissions.

Not Yet in Canada? Pity.

It’s an opportunity that is exploited extensively throughout the world, but rarely in Canada. The agricultural waste stream is the largest source of raw material, but most of it is distant from gas lines. At best, biogas could feasibly supply about 5% of consumer demand. But much of that demand is located in rural communities that are searching for sustainable, affordable sources of electricity and heat. Encouraging distributed, community-based production of a real green fuel would be a far better option for provincial governments that are directing taxpayers’ money to subsidize new natural gas infrastructure that will be stranded if natural gas production is phased out—as it must ultimately be—to meet Canada’s mid-century climate targets.

That phaseout will have to go even farther than the fracking moratorium that has been demanded by the Green Party of Canada and several non-profit advocacy groups. Because the natural gas industry is integrated across North America, with large exports and imports to and from the United States, a Canadian moratorium would only result in more fracking south of the border. That’s why advocacy, policy, and action must focus on demand destruction, pressuring governments to replace natural gas with aggressive energy efficiency and conservation to reduce demand, then renewables to meet whatever requirements are left.

To get to that point, a critical first step is to correct the industry’s egregious errors in GHG accounting. Actual emissions are being drastically underestimated, and the role of methane in global warming is not captured properly by referring to its 100-year global warming potential. There’s work to be done by climate change NGOs in pushing to get those calculations fixed.

Ultimately, Canada must embrace the mission of achieving net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and aggressively curtailing methane if it is to do its part in holding global temperature rise to well below 2.0°C. Replacing coal plants with natural gas generators at home or abroad does not make the cut. Reducing fugitive methane from gas production does not alter the priority of replacing natural gas with renewable energy. A good starting point is to properly and fully evaluate GHG impacts attributable to development activities, the subject of a future article.

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1 Comment To "Asleep at the Switch: Canada’s Pathway to 1.5°C Means Phasing Out Natural Gas"

#1 Comment By Steve Shallhorn On November 9, 2018 @ 11:26 AM

The Toronto and York Region Labour Council recently advocated to the Ontario Legislature that Ontario adopt the milestone of a phase-out of using fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2040. Its long past time to bring a firm end to the “transition fuel” of natural gas.