Though there’s widespread agreement that methane from the oil and gas sector is a big greenhouse gas problem that needs to be addressed, what we’re doing about it isn’t likely to work. We need far more innovative solutions, conclude the authors of a new report from the C.D. Howe Institute, “Measuring and Managing the Unknown: Methane Emissions from the Oil and Gas Value Chain”.
Canada has put in place regulations intended to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40% to 45% from 2012 levels in 2025. Alberta and British Columbia have similar requirements for wells under provincial jurisdiction. The fatal weakness of these regulations, say the authors, is the inadequacy of baseline data.
“How can regulators know when they have achieved the 40% to 45% reduction when there is no present consensus about the baseline?” they ask.
Further complicating matters are weaknesses in current data. Jurisdictions may have different reporting thresholds, leaving open the question of just how much emitted methane is going unreported. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that emissions are currently underestimated. If true, there are serious policy implications, the authors say. For instance, a policy to shift electricity generation from high-emitting coal to natural gas will have much less impact if methane emissions from the natural gas sector are revealed to be higher than initially believed.
Adhering to the well-worn maxim “what’s measured gets managed,” governments should first focus on gathering accurate baseline and ongoing data. It’s too late to revisit the 2012 baseline. Instead, policymakers will have to agree on a defensible estimate of that figure. Going forward, there are many new measurement technologies and practices that can be adopted, and they should be reviewed regularly to ensure they remain accurate.
Governments should also revisit their current policy responses, the authors argue. Current regulations may be too prescriptive, forcing companies to adopt specific technologies when alternatives may be more cost-effective.
“Regulations should consider outcome-based standards that could be met by existing technologies or new innovations instead of prescribing use of specific technologies available at the time the regulation is drafted,” they argue. Partnerships with universities and businesses may allow government to craft and update regulations that keep pace with science and technological innovation.