Suzuki Foundation researchers come back impressed by B.C.'s natural gas emissions

Looking for evidence of methane emissions in British Columbia's natural gas extraction industry, researchers were surprised at how tight the new wave of field equipment really is.

METHANE-STUDY.gifStewart Muir of Resource Works checks out a new study on the occurrence of methane leakages in British Columbia natural gas extraction. 

The David Suzuki Foundation, in a recent report produced in collaboration with St. Xavier University of Nova Scotia, claims methane emissions from B.C.’s natural-gas emissions are higher than reported. The Toronto Star was among news outlets that promptly carried a story flagging the finding. 

While a Suzuki spokesperson described the findings as "staggering", it turns out on closer examination that the actual report portrays a much more nuanced situation. The problems with methane escape are from dated, in some cases no longer in service, gas infrastructure, and not from the current generation.

Based on the study, the role of natural gas as a much cleaner fossil fuel that can aid in the global fight against climate change is reinforced, rather than blunted. 

Of the newer well infrastructure in British Columbia's Montney region, “relatively little of it emits — presumably because of improved modern practice, integrity, and better design of new valves, seals and flange gaskets etc.”

With hundreds of new wells being drilled and other modern infrastructure being put into place in 2017, it's clear that the methane issue does not lie in current or future natural gas production.

The Suzuki Foundation should be encouraged to use this study as further evidence for supporting continued development of the Montney shale. 

The study also confirms the high quality of natural gas regulation in British Columbia compared with the United States. The researchers who drove around the Peace River district measuring emissions found that “in comparison to studies at select U.S. natural-gas sites our results suggest that natural-gas activity in the Montney formation may emit both less-frequently and less-severely than U.S. comparators.”

The Suzuki Foundation also did not address another matter the researchers disclosed. The Peace River district is ranch country and the researchers were unable to say definitively that the methane gas they were measuring came from natural gas extraction, or whether it also included methane issuing from cattle.

Wrote the researchers: "No unique thermogenic tracer was used in this package of surveys to discriminate biogenic CH4 sources, such as cattle that may have been present on the well sites at the time of surveying."

So this whole story might be based on bovine flatus and burps? Even though the researchers took steps to ensure their data was solid, this is a possibility they could not rule out. They also observed that maintenance work, as well as current drilling operations, might have skewed the measurements.

Despite the potential flaws, it's good to know that research of this type is being done. It can help draw attention to the regulations that are in place to improve British Columbia's already impressive environmental performance, as well as flag areas that do need closer attention.

Even though the Suzuki Foundation is widely seen as dedicated to opposing most types of resource infrastructure, its research paper took pains to acknowledge how successful BC has been in protecting the environment, especially when compared to the United States, a jurisdiction that remains gridlocked on the climate leadership issue.

The researchers went out of their way to praise British Columbia practices. Wrote the St. Francis Xavier University researchers in their paper: "The less-permeable, natural-gas hosting portion of the Montney formation is located in BC, a province that has generally been very progressive on many issues of environmental stewardship, so there is a broad interest in emissions quantification and environmental performance."

Thanks to the Suzuki Foundation's work, we have fresh verification that companies are working hard to meet federal and provincial environmental standards, and succeeding. These players know it pays to innovate and exceed standards and be a world leader. There is evidently some ageing equipment out there that might need attention, and BC's proud history of environmentalism provides assurances that that will happen. Groups such as the BC Oil and Gas Research and Innovation Society have a job to do in ensuring that findings on these issues are shared and interpreted with the public.

Let's not forget that natural gas in BC provides the foundation for responsible resource development, including the progress of an LNG export industry based on development of the Montney shale resource. By succeeding with this, the province can take pride in helping other countries reduce their unhealthy practices that damage the global environment.

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