Thursday, May 9, 2013

Unreported Emissions from Natural Gas Blow Up British Columbia's Climate Action Plan - BC's Carbon Footprint Likely 25% Greater Than Reported

natural gas transmission pipelines
This is the first part of a two-part series on methane emissions in British Columbia. (Both parts included here).

Methane emissions from British Columbia's natural gas industry are likely at least 7 times greater than official numbers blowing BC's Climate Action Plan out of the water. Natural gas is nearly all methane and since methane is such a powerful climate warming gas these unreported emissions mean the total CO2 equivalent emissions for the entire province are nearly 25% higher than is being reported.

The province's legislated climate plan is to reduce CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2e) 33% below 2007 levels by 2020. The booming natural gas sector may make that target an impossibility.

Each year the BC gas industry "loses" about 20% of the natural gas between pumping it out of the ground and its final destination. That was 7.4 billion cubic meters in 2010 out of a total production of 36.4 billion cubic meters according government statistics (BC's Natural Gas Exports). If a cubic meter was a second, 7.4 billion seconds equals 240 years.

While this gas was "lost in the field, the plant or during distribution and export" the report says most is not actually 'lost' but used by the industry to power equipment, pump the gas through the pipelines and so on.

But some of this gas escaped into the atmosphere through leaks, deliberate venting and what the industry calls fugitive emissions. According to senior official in the BC Ministry of Environment just 0.3 to 0.4% was lost to the atmosphere in 2010. However, recent US studies of the gas industry show these losses or fugitive emissions are between 2% and 9%.

BC Methane Leak Estimate 0.3%; Actual US measurements 4% to 9%

Actual measurements of the amount of methane escaping gas fields and pipelines are rare and not done by the Ministry. Recent in-field measurements at two different locations in Colorado and Utah found methane leakage ranging from 4% to 9% according to a report in the science journal Nature.

Robert Howarth and colleagues at Cornell University in New York State estimated that between 3.6% and 7.9% of all shale gas produced leaks in studies published in 2012 and 2011. Shale gas obtained through hydraulic fracking is believed to be leakier than traditional drilling methods. About half of BC gas is obtained by fracking. Most of BC's gas is exported to Alberta and the US.

BC's reported methane leaks are "absurdly low" Howarth told DeSmog. 

"The very, very lowest numbers ever published, and they were published by industry, were 0.67%," Howarth said.

"As more field measurements are made, our numbers (mean of 5.8%) are looking like they might even be low."

It is hugely important to know how much methane is leaking. When methane is burned to heat your home the waste product is CO2. While CO2 lives for centuries in the atmosphere, unburned methane has a shorter life but is much better at trapping heat than CO2. Initially this heat-trapping power was considered 21 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year time period. Later this was increased to 25 times which is widely used and this is expected to be raised to 33 times. These metrics are called “global warming potential” or GWP.

However, new research shows over a 20-year-time span methane's global warming potential (GWP) is up to 105 times greater than CO2.

"Given the urgent need to reduce methane emissions globally to keep global temperature rise below the critical value of 1.5 to 2 degree C. many Earth System scientists believe the 20-year time frame is the appropriate one to use," said Howarth.

One of the world's leading methane experts agrees.

"If you believe limiting near-term climate change is an important goal for society, than it makes sense to pay attention to the 20-yr value (105X)," Drew Shindell at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies told DeSmog.

Methane Leaks Like Adding At Least 3 Million Cars to BC Roads

If BC's leaks are in reality 3% then that's roughly 1.1 billion cubic meters of methane that escapes into the atmosphere each year. That means these leaks are equivalent to pumping out 15.5 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 based on GWP of 21 that the province uses, and is the current international standard until later this year. That's equivalent to the emissions from operating 3 million cars for one year (Avg: 5.1 ton CO2/vehicle/year). The province has 2 million licensed passenger vehicles.

Using the climate protection metric of a GWP of 105 then BC's methane leaks is the same as pumping 77.5 Mt of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, more than doubling the province's carbon footprint.

Emissions for the entire province from all sources, transport, energy, home, industry etc. was 62 Mt in 2010 (most recent year available). Of that total just 2.2 Mt of CO2 were attributed to methane emissions from the natural gas industry according to a senior official at the Ministry of Environment.

The main reason for the huge gap between BC's reported methane emissions of 2.2 Mt vs. the more realistic emissions of 15.5 to 77.5 Mt appears to be under reporting by the industry.

End part one. In part two the gas industry responds, and what fugitive emissions mean for BC's hopes to become an LNG export giant.

Image Credit: By Nexen Inc. in BC's Natural Gas Strategy Report.

This post is the second of a two part series. Read the first installment, Unreported Emissions From Natural Gas Blow Up BC's Climate Action Plan.

Methane leaks from British Columbia's natural gas industry are likely at least 7 times greater than official numbers increasing the entire provinces' carbon footprint by nearly 25%. That's like putting 3 million more vehicles on BC's roads.

As Part One revealed official government figures state only 0.3% to 0.4% of BC's natural gas production leaks into the atmosphere. No believes that is accurate. Independent studies in the US show these methane leaks range between 2% and 9%.

All aspects of natural gas operations including drilling gathering, processing and pipelines can leak methane into the atmosphere. The industry doesn't like to call them leaks, preferring the term “fugitive emissions.”
Seals, valves, joints, compressor pumps all can leak. There are literally hundreds of thousands of points where this can occur said Bill Tubbs Manager, Environmental Permitting & Regulation at Spectra Energy Transmission. Headquartered in Houston, Texas Spectra is the biggest gas pipeline and processing companies operating in western Canada.

“We don't measure fugitive emissions, we estimate how much for reporting purposes,” Tubbs told DeSmog.

Since methane is flammable and potentially explosive all gas operations are constantly on the lookout for significant leaks and seal them. “Serious leaks are dangerous,” he said. Companies have leak detection programs including infrared video that can reveal the source of leaks.

Neither the BC Ministry of the Environment nor the industry regulator, the BC Oil and Gas Commission, do on site inspections for fugitive emissions Tubbs said.

Large releases of methane can happen when a new well is drilled. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 25 million cubic feet of gas escapes on “well completion.” The EPA estimates that 15% of this gas is flared or burned on average, leaving about 450,000 cubic meters of methane to escape into the atmosphere for every new well (Assumes only 78% of total volume of gas released is methane).

Some 720 new wells were completed in 2010 according to the BC Oil and Gas Commission. Emissions from these new wells total 4.6 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) using the EPA data. Based on industry reports, BC reported a total of of 2.2 Mt of CO2e for fugitive methane emissions from all sources including well completions.

As shown in Part One methane is far better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2. BC uses a global warming potential (GWP) of 21 for methane, meaning methane will trap 21 times more heat than carbon dioxide (over a certain time-frame). Many climate scientists say new research shows that a GWP of 105 should be used.

This means the climate impact of well completions in 2010 may be five times greater amounting to a release of 23 Mt of CO2 into the atmosphere. That's more than twice the yearly emissions from all of BC's 2 million passenger cars (Avg: 5.1 ton CO2/vehicle/year).

Fugitive emissions and venting of methane probably amount to 1% to 2% of gas production in BC Tubbs said. He does not think higher levels of 3% to 8% measured in the US apply to BC.

"Methane leaks from the extraction of natural gas are a huge driver of climate change,” said Guy Dauncey, Executive Director of the BC Sustainable Energy Association.

Unless there is a clear plan to capture and neutralize the methane, the Province's proposed strategy for liquified natural gas (LNG) exports will make it completely impossible to achieve the legislated goal of a 33% reduction in emissions by 2020 under the BC Climate Action Plan Dauncey told DeSmog.

Current methane emissions are making a mockery of the Climate Action Plan but LNG export plans would “blow them way, way out of the water,” said Matt Horne, director of the Pembina Institute's Climate Change program.

“The math simply does not add up,” Horne told DeSmog.

There are as many as 17 LNG export terminal proposals floating around but only three are likely to be built by 2020 he said. Those three would likely double BC's natural gas output, mainly from shale gas from hydraulic fracturing operations which have higher reported levels of methane leaks.
Although the Province reported only 2.2 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2e of methane emissions in 2010, the actual amount was likely between 15.5 to 77.5 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2e, depending the GWP used. Doubling gas production means that in 2020 these emissions would be 46.5 Mt (using GWP of 33) to 155 Mt (GWP of 105) a year.

In 2010 the entire province's carbon footprint was 62 Mt. By 2020 it is supposed to shrink to 45 Mt.
Setting aside methane leaks for a moment, fracking, processing and pumping natural gas over long distances consumes large amounts of energy. LNG facilities are also highly energy intensive. One LNG facility would emit 2 Mt of CO2e from burning natural gas to power the operation, Horne calculated.

For all these reasons LNG exports would not contribute to lower global carbon emissions even if they replaced coal as an energy source, said James Bradbury, senior associate in the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute (WRI). WRI is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

A recent WRI report, "Clearing the Air," found that cuts in methane leakage from natural gas systems are cost effective and among the most important steps the U.S. can take toward meeting its GHG emissions reduction goals, Bradbury said at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing May 7.

“(C)utting fugitive emissions from natural gas systems would ensure that the climate impacts of natural gas are much lower than coal,” he said.
The WRI's very comprehensive report details ways the industry can use existing technology to lower methane emissions to 1% by 2020.

However a doubling of BC's natural gas production by 2020 would mean that even if only 1% leaks it will add between 15 and 50 Mt to BC's carbon footprint. Again, this is just from fugitive emissions.

To meet the Climate Action Plan target of 2020 the province's emissions should be 45 Mt.

“The public isn't really aware of the consequences of the LNG export push,” said Horne.

Image Credit: LNG rendering by Apache Canada, used in BC's LNG Strategy Report.

Recent News

More News