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California gas leak should spur Canada to get methane emissions under control

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The leaking Aliso Canyon well pad in Los Angeles County on December 17, 2015.

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Earlier this month, California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak. Since at least October 23, large volumes of methane -- a significant contributor to climate change -- and other pollutants have been escaping from an underground gas storage site in the Los Angeles area. Southern California Gas Company, the operator of the facility, has been trying to stop the leak for almost three months without success.

So how much methane is leaking from the site? Based on preliminary estimates published by the California Air Resources Board, one million tonnes of carbon pollution are being released per month. That's a bit less than what's coming out of the Syncrude oilsands mine and upgrader and the Sundance coal-fired electricity plant in Alberta -- Canada's two largest greenhouse-gas emitters -- and more than the total emissions of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

While the Aliso Canyon disaster has rightly been grabbing headlines, it's a timely reminder of the much larger volumes of methane that are regularly released from all oil-and-gas operations -- including those in Canada. Based on an analysis by the consulting firm ICF International, oil-and-gas methane emissions in Canada totalled 81.9 million tonnes in 2013 -- that's equivalent to almost seven Aliso Canyons. Those 81.9 million tonnes are spread across thousands of sources in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan's oil-and-gas sectors.

If what's happening in California warrants a state of emergency, why aren't Canada's methane emissions considered a disaster? And why are we not acting faster to deal with the problem? Most of these emissions could be reduced or eliminated at low cost. The ICF analysis found that methane emissions in Canada could be reduced by 45 per cent for less than $3 per tonne.

Even though that's affordable, it isn't free, so the reductions are unlikely to happen without government policy that encourages or requires industry to take action. In Alberta, the provincial government identified managing methane emissions from the oil-and-gas sector as a key priority in its Climate Leadership Plan. In an effort that closely aligns with commitments made by the Obama administration, the province has vowed to cut oil-and-gas methane by 45 per cent by 2025.

In B.C., methane emissions are still a gap in the province’s 2008 Climate Action Plan. Premier Christy Clark's Climate Leadership Team recommended methane emissions from B.C.'s natural-gas sector be reduced by 40 per cent in five years, with the province's carbon tax then expanding to apply to currently exempted sources including methane leaks. The government has not yet indicated whether it will implement these recommendations.

We urge the province to adopt the Climate Leadership Team's whole package of recommendations. (A 60-day consultation period for the Climate Leadership Plan will kick off on January 25.) B.C.'s leadership, coupled with Alberta's, would point the way forward for the federal government and others.

The Aliso Canyon disaster is a stark reminder of why methane emissions from the natural-gas sector matter, and why governments must do more to manage them. We should view it as motivation to implement the necessary policies in Canada. It's also a good reminder of the need to transition to renewable energy and increase energy efficiency as rapidly as possible: the less we rely on gas and other fossil fuels, the lower the risk of another Aliso Canyon.

(Note: The CARB and ICF analyses use global warming potentials [GWP] of 25 to convert volumes of methane to carbon dioxide equivalents. In this article, we have adjusted their calculations using a GWP of 34 to represent the latest findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

Maximilian Kniewasser is an analyst at the Vancouver office of the Pembina Institute.

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Image: Earthworks

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