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Measuring and Managing the Unknown: Methane Emissions from the Oil and Gas Value Chain

Authors: Sarah Marie Jordaan and Kate Konschnik

Published: March 2019

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Publication Type: Policy Brief

Tracking and reducing methane emissions from oil and gas operations needs an innovative approach, according to new report from the C.D. Howe Institute. In “Measuring and Managing the Unknown: Methane Emissions from the Oil and Gas Value Chain” authors Sarah Marie Jordaan and Kate Konschnik highlight the growing pressure on industry and policymakers to address the “unknown” factor in greenhouse gas emissions and propose a regulatory approach that remains open to new technologies.

The Canadian government has pledged with its North American neighbours to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure 40–45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. Methane packs a powerful punch with up to 36 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time frame. However, scientists have not reached consensus on how much methane escapes from leaky oil and gas infrastructure in Canada and across North America.

Regulators will face challenges in verifying the promised reductions unless the emissions baseline is settled, note the authors. If methane emissions are sufficiently high, then the emissions benefits of displacing higher carbon emission electricity generation, such as coal fired electricity, with carbon-efficient natural gas generation evaporate. Systems for more accurate measurement are necessary to verify fugitive emissions and confirm reductions.

The report finds that emissions pricing and existing regulations cannot solve the methane problem alone, given the limited scientific understanding of the amount of methane escaping from oil and gas infrastructure. To address this limitation, Canadian governments could make systematic, iterative improvements to present policies using the authors’ proposed integrated science-policy framework.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • What gets measured gets managed. Alongside direct measurement, decision-makers should develop methods that better estimate all infrastructure leaks, using measurements to validate results.

  • Innovation in tandem by universities, industry and governments. Innovation can result in creative new ways to measure fugitive emissions, to stop their escape and to produce natural gas. Universities, businesses and governments should seek to promote innovation by all actors in solving the challenge of fugitive emissions.

  • Regulatory benchmarking and alignment. Canadian governments may seek to meet or exceed best-in-class regulations that have been implemented in other regions.

  • Integration of policy and regulation with robust science. Policymakers should not stall progress in regulations due to current gaps in measurement. The authors’ science-policy framework demonstrates how regulations can be refined with ongoing advances in measurement and mitigation technologies.