The inability to accurately measure and regulate methane emissions from natural gas operations is emerging as a gaping, potentially fatal flaw in a Canadian climate strategy that appears to lean increasingly on a continuing presence for the oil and gas industry, with large volumes of hydrogen to be produced from natural gas.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to unveil an updated greenhouse gas reduction target in conjunction with U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate leaders’ summit Thursday. But scientists and analysts say Canada is still not at a point where it can calculate, then set out to reliably control the methane emissions that are an inevitable result of extracting and handling fossil gas—especially if it’s produced by fracking.
Methane is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the 20-year span when humanity will be scrambling to get climate change under control. It’s also a shorter-lived climate pollutant, which means efforts to reduce it can deliver the quick gains that are needed to show progress on the climate crisis.
But “you can’t reduce what you can’t measure,” Carleton University methane researcher Matthew Johnson told CBC. “And if we’re talking about [a] 45% [methane reduction target] in a near term…and net-zero by 2050, we better be measuring how our progress is going or we won’t make it.”
Johnson’s comment appeared in a news report Thursday, the latest of several over the last couple of years concluding that methane emissions are consistently undercounted. CBC says a team led by St. Francis Xavier University researcher Dave Risk found that actual emissions are about 1.5 times the government estimate, based on field readings at 6,500 sites. Last year, Environment and Climate Change Canada scientists said the reality was twice as bad as the official figures.
The more modest numbers are estimated, rather than measured directly, based on a methane inventory that is now more than 10 years old.
None of this should be news to the fossil companies producing the emissions, or the governments setting regulations to control them. But Canada is still forging ahead with a climate and energy strategy that only works if the methane problem is solved.
A Big Role for ‘Blue’ Hydrogen
Earlier this month, the Globe and Mail reported that a “burgeoning” Canadian hydrogen industry is urging the federal government to “support various methods to ensure the country meets its climate goals.” That includes a central role for “blue” hydrogen, which is derived from natural gas and relies on carbon capture and storage methods that are seen by many analysts as a path to increase greenhouse gas emissions, rather than reducing them.
“We are worried that there are statements from some of the [non-government organizations] that the only good hydrogen is green hydrogen, which is made from renewable power,” said Mark Kirby, CEO of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA). “That is an arbitrary and restrictive definition, and that will limit the availability and increase the cost of hydrogen.”
The Globe says Natural Resources Canada is involved in efforts to develop international standards for relatively low-carbon hydrogen, with results expected in the next 18 months to two years.
“The real question mark is what’s the carbon intensity of your hydrogen? You can make clean hydrogen in many, many ways,” Kirby told the Globe. “It is actually very counterproductive to our common goal of getting to net-zero, if you start putting limitations on how you make clean hydrogen. Every pathway should be examined.”
Air Liquide Canada, which produces both green and unabated “grey” hydrogen at a plant in Bécancour, Quebec, had the same take. “We should find a way to capture, reuse or push for sequestration of CO2,” said CEO Bertrand Masselot. “I’m just saying that the upcoming solution will not be purely green.”
But Victoria-based climate and energy consultant Dan Woynillowicz said hydrogen will have to be as clean as possible to play a useful role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Environmentalists tend to want to avoid blue hydrogen because it’s produced from fossil gas, so it perpetuates fossil fuel production,” he told the Globe.
“Blue is better than grey. But we can’t ignore the fact that green is cleaner than blue,” he added. “All that said, the colour labels are poorly defined. Ultimately, it’s not the colour that matters, it’s the carbon intensity.”
A Hydrogen Strategy Built for Gas
The plan to use blue hydrogen as a bridge to the renewably-produced variety could fall apart in light of the tight, 2030 and 2050 deadlines countries face to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the relatively short timeline for “green” hydrogen to become cost-competitive. “We may become very good at these transitional solutions,” said Walter Mérida, a University of British Columbia mechanical engineering professor who sits on the CHFCA board, in a CBC interview last week. “But by the time we are very good at them, other parts of the world may be leapfrogging to completely new technologies that may leave us behind.”
But that didn’t deter the federal government from releasing a hydrogen strategy last December that included no specific commitment of federal funds, but called for C$5 to $7 billion in public and private investment over the next five years to build an industry that relies primarily on natural gas for its feedstock. The plan envisioned a $50-billion hydrogen sector that creates 350,000 jobs by 2050, with industries like long-haul transportation, rail, aviation, mining, oil refining, and steel production depending on the fuel to reduce their emissions.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan’s enthusiasm for the plan was undiminished on last week’s CBC show.
“All over the world, people are very excited about hydrogen. They’re excited about the fact that it’s zero-emission, and that it could fill in in places where electrification is harder—particularly in the transportation sectors,” he told What On Earth host Laura Lynch.
“I’ll be very, very clear about this: If the goal for some people is to shut down the fossil fuel industry, then no, they won’t be happy with what I’m proposing.”
20 Years of Undercounting
But that position can’t line up with any realistic climate strategy unless the gas industry’s methane emissions are brought under control. And Canada’s poor performance in measuring those emissions has a long history.
“I know without a doubt that scientists in Canada and abroad have known probably for 20 years…that emissions were underestimated,” SFX’s Dave Risk told CBC in yesterday’s broadcast.
Not there hasn’t been a lot of effort to fix the problem. CBC traces what it’s taken for Risk and his team to conduct field measurements at thousands of oil and gas sites across western Canada.
“It’s difficult work,” the national broadcaster states. “Researchers sometimes put in 12-hour days, driving all day to visit numerous remote sites. They have to spend weeks in the field, visiting each site multiple times to collect measurements.”
But that difficult, painstaking approach delivers far better, more accurate results than the alternative.
Currently, “Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) estimates methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by mostly relying on mathematical modelling based on a small number of field measurements,” CBC explains. “The agency is constantly updating its methodology and the process to estimate methane is in line with international obligations,” but researchers still say it’s time to start relying on actual field measurements.
“Right now the inventory is based on estimates that are over a decade old and they’re proposing using new estimates, which is a step forward, but it still uses estimates,” said Pembina Institute Senior Analyst Jan Gorski. “Eventually where we want to get to is to actually use real measurements, looking at what are the real levels of methane that are being emitted right now in the field.”
ECCC responded that “in the future, atmospheric measurements may be used to validate existing estimates in a way that was previously not possible,” but CBC says the department didn’t offer a timeline.
Better Measurement, Better Inventories
Canada does have a 2025 target to reduce methane emissions 40 to 45%, and the federal government has put $750 million on the table to help fossil companies push their performance beyond provincial regulations, which fall under provincial authority. “But knowing which pieces of equipment are leaking methane, and therefore should be targeted, is a challenge,” CBC says, citing Carleton University’s Johnson, whose team is developing a new airborne laser technology “that could help detect methane with unprecedented accuracy”.
Though Johnson expressed urgency to get on with methane measurement and reductions, he was optimistic about tests his team conducted in northern B.C., in which a plane mounted with an imaging unit flew over multiple oil and gas sites.
“By being able to fly hundreds of facilities, see sources within facilities, and to quantify, you can change how inventories are created to make them more accurate and more reflective of what’s really out there,” he told CBC. “That allows operators to make decisions about what action needs to be done to get the most methane out of the air and allows regulations to be developed to focus on the things that matter, so that dollar for dollar, we’re doing the best we can.”
Johnson and Risk both said they’re both hopeful that better technology can make methane measurements more accurate and regulations more effective. “I also think methane reductions in the oil and gas sector just makes so much sense for the Canadian economy because they can be achieved for such low dollars today,” Risk told The Energy Mix in a follow-up interview Thursday afternoon.
Citing Johnson’s work, Risk said a fossil operator in Alberta shouldn’t expect to pay more than $10 to control a volume of methane with the atmospheric impact of a tonne of carbon dioxide, and the price would usually come in closer to $2. “That’s a cheaper gain than we can make in any other part of the economy for mitigation,” he said. “So it makes sense to go for it, and if we miss the opportunity now, it’s not just missed for fossil fuels, but for other uses of natural gas or oil, hydrogen and petrochemicals included.”
‘Hydrogen Needs to Be Low-Carbon’
An expectation for tighter controls is also included in some of the contracts Canadian companies would have to sign to export liquefied natural gas (LNG), Risk stated. But the regulations governing methane emissions are ultimately up to each province. British Columbia “has been pretty steadfast in their commitment to quantification” through annual methane surveys and screening, he said. But “if we don’t have that requirement, if it’s looser in other provinces, then those provinces are the ones where we will have to continually be suspicious of the numbers.”
If a hydrogen strategy hinges on natural gas production in provinces that don’t have solid methane regulations in place, “I certainly think that’s a concern,” he added.
“To meet our methane targets, we need to improve our measurement data on methane emissions,” agreed the Pembina Institute’s Gorski, and “for blue hydrogen to be a viable solution, you need to have a plan to reduce the full life cycle emissions of that source of hydrogen. That includes both getting really high carbon capture rates, but also figuring out how to address the emissions from natural gas production and processing, and that’s methane.”
Have industry and governments managed to connect those dots in time for policies that are already being rolled out? “I think we’re still waiting to hear about that,” Gorski told The Mix. “It’s what needs to happen. If hydrogen is going to be a solution it needs to be low-carbon, so we need a fulsome plan going forward.”
Maggie Hanna, an Energy Futures Lab fellow who’s been working on hydrogen since 2015, said she sees no problem proceeding with a hydrogen strategy while key questions remain unanswered. She cited analysis showing that blue hydrogen falls below the European Union low-emission standard of five kilograms of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilo of hydrogen—though she couldn’t say how accurately the methane had been measured, and agreed the option is only viable if it meets the EU threshold.
Hanna was talking about the kind of intensity-based target that fossil companies prefer, but that allows for emissions to rise as production of a fuel increase, making it that much more essential—precisely 84 times more so than it would be for carbon dioxide—to get methane controls right.
But even with that key question unanswered, Hanna said it’s urgent to get rolling on hydrogen production.
“It’s critical to do blue hydrogen because it’s half to a third the cost of green hydrogen, and we have to build out the hydrogen infrastructure,” she said, including pipelines, shipping, export/import ports, and salt caverns for storage. “Down the line, green hydrogen is going to catch up, and the transportation infrastructure won’t care where the hydrogen came from. So we will actually decarbonize sooner because of blue hydrogen.”
Hanna explained that her sense of urgency is driven not only by the demand she foresees for hydrogen, but by what she sees as the limits on what green hydrogen can deliver. “In decarbonizing, we are competing for green electrons,” she said. “At the very same time that we’re trying to green the grid and maybe double the grid infrastructure, we’ll want to take those green electrons and make hydrogen out of them. Those two things are in serious competition, and electricity will win, probably until 2045.”