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Saskatchewan heavy oil production releasing 30-40 per cent more methane emissions than counted: study


A new study has found that Saskatchewan’s methane emissions are up to 40 per cent higher than what is currently reported — backing up earlier research suggesting that the province is underestimating how much of the greenhouse gas is being released.


It means that while the province appears to be making big strides in methane emissions reductions, it may actually be releasing tonnes of the powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere uncounted, putting a wrench in Canada’s progress towards cutting emissions.


“What we did with this study in Saskatchewan was incorporating some new measurement data into Saskatchewan’s upstream oil and gas methane inventory,” Scott Seymour, a senior research analyst with the Environmental Defence Fund and the lead author of the study, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “And what we find is that the methane emissions from Saskatchewan are 30 to 40 per cent higher than the federal inventory would suggest.”


The cause, according to researchers, is unclear emissions regulations in the province, which rely on estimates and are difficult to enforce.


It’s something researchers say needs to change if Canada is to stand a chance in fighting climate change.


“In Canada, the oil and gas sector is the largest contribution to methane emissions,” Seymour said. “So this is our opportunity to significantly cut greenhouse gases being emitted in Canada.”


The study, released last week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, follows up on earlier research published in February, which found that Saskatchewan’s heavy oil production was emitting four times more methane gas than was reported to the government.


Saskatchewan is Canada’s second largest oil producing region after Alberta. In 2020, the province’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita were the highest in Canada, with the oil and gas sector making up 26 per cent of all of Saskatchewan’s greenhouse gas emissions that year, according to data from Environment and Climate Change Canada.


Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is more than 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it’s the second most abundant greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide, accounting for around 20 per cent of global emissions.


“We’ve estimated that it’s about $40 million worth of (methane) gas that’s been unreported and released directly to atmosphere from these (heavy oil production) wells just since 2020. These sites are reporting some level of emissions. But this is just what’s over and above what they have reported,” Seymour said, explaining that this figure represents an estimate of how much this methane would be worth if it could have been repurposed for use.


“Because these reported emissions are underestimating Saskatchewan’s total, it means that a lot of emissions are likely to evade proper control under the current regulations.”


Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Energy and Resources is aware of the studies and “is constantly looking to increase data accuracy by improving emissions measurement and data reporting techniques,” a spokesperson told CTVNews.ca in an email Monday.


Ministry officials collaborated with researchers on both studies, they said, “to provide perspective on interpreting provincial regulations and data regarding Saskatchewan’s upstream oil and gas sites including cold heavy oil wells produced with sand, which represent less than 10 per cent of the wells in Saskatchewan.”


They reiterated that the province has made “great progress” in lowering emissions, stating that greenhouse gas emissions from venting and flaring at upstream oil facilities declined by 64 per cent between 2015 and 2022.


“This continues to be an area of focus for the Ministry of Energy and Resources and the ministry will continue to review the findings of the reports,” the ministry said.


HEAVY OIL PRODUCTION LEAKING UNCOUNTED METHANE


The study focused on underreported emissions from cold heavy oil production with sand — a process known as CHOPS.


Heavy oil is pumped out of the ground with sand, water and gas, a technique rarely used by oil companies based outside of Canada.


“The gas is separated from the oil and then the gas can be used on site to power an engine that helps to power the well and power other pieces of equipment on site,” Seymour explained. “But what’s happening is the volume of this gas appears to be underestimated. And the excess is being released to the atmosphere.”


The previous study focused on site-by-site emissions, but this new study used two new aerial measurement techniques to take regional measurements.


The first involved a plane ride: an aircraft would fly around a designated region that had a high amount of CHOPS wells, extracting samples from the air and analyzing the methane concentration, as well as the wind direction to better pinpoint where emissions were coming from.


With the second technique, researchers took aerial measurements by pointing a laser down towards the ground to get an image of the plumes coming off CHOPS wells and individual pieces of equipment. Seymour noted that this technique allows them to get a better idea of which equipment itself is leaking the most emissions.


Seymour acknowledged that gathering data from the open air by plane means it could contain methane that had come from sources other than CHOPS wells. But he explained that they stuck to regions with a heavy CHOPS presence, and when they compared their aerial measurements to those of the previous study, they were very similar, confirming that the vast majority of the emissions were coming from the CHOPS wells.


“We get emission levels that agree with each other, suggesting that they’re likely measuring the same sources,” Seymour said.


In order to keep track of their emissions and observe if tactics to cut down emissions are working, the government keeps an inventory of emission rates based on industry-reported data.


Once they had collected their data, researchers plugged the new numbers into a recreation of that federal inventory, replacing the emissions officially reported for CHOPS wells with the measurements they had taken.


“That’s where we get the 30 to 40 per cent (more emissions),” Seymour said.


UNCLEAR REGULATIONS MISSING HUGE AMOUNTS OF EMISSIONS


In 2019, Saskatchewan introduced the Oil and Gas Emission Management Regulations (OGEMR) as part of their Methane Action Plan to reduce emissions, pledging to “reduce methane emissions in the province by over 40 per cent between 2020 and 2025.


“OGEMR’s mandatory emissions reductions are equivalent to a decrease of 4.5 million tonnes of CO2 e (equivalent) annually by 2025,” the plan states.


And until earlier this year, it looked like Saskatchewan was ahead of schedule.


In a 2021 emissions report, Saskatchewan stated that their venting and flaring emissions were below the 2025 target outlined in their Methane Action Plan.


But if the new data reported in the two studies this year is accurate, Saskatchewan may not have reached the milestone they think they have, despite the clear reduction in methane emissions the province has achieved in the last decade.


How could operators and regulators be missing so many emissions in their reporting? It comes down to the way that methane emissions are regulated in Saskatchewan, the study’s authors suggest.


“What happens with these wells is, for many of them, they’re not actively measuring the emissions that come off of the different vent points. Instead, they’re estimating it,” Seymour explained.


Exact measurements may be taken once every few months or every few years, but between those points, operators run off estimates, he said.


“And so if there’s any difficulties, or if there’s any inaccuracies in that estimation method over time, that can lead to this amount of methane that’s being underreported.”


The goal of the OGEMR is to provide requirements for operators to follow in order to reduce emissions without putting too many constraints on the operators themselves. Essentially, companies are allowed to decide how they will stay under the emissions cap, without specific limits or emissions regulations being placed on facilities or pieces of equipment, in order to allow companies to find the most cost-effective way to keep their emissions down.


These “fleet-level emissions limits” seen in Alberta and Saskatchewan are different from than the “site specific emissions limits” used to regulate emissions in many other oil-producing regions in the U.S. and Canada, the study noted.


There are federal regulations for methane emissions that set more specific guidelines for some facilities and equipment.


But in November 2020, the federal government agreed that these regulations would not apply in Saskatchewan to avoid doubling up on environmental regulations. This agreement is set to expire at the end of 2024. Similar agreements exist between the federal government and B.C. and Alberta to allow them to create regional tailored approaches to mitigation. 


Seymour said that “there’s a long historical precedent” for operators and regulators to utilize estimates instead of taking constant measurements.


But increasingly, evidence is showing that this tactic just isn’t accurate enough.


“We’re learning more and more that having more active measurement or active monitoring is really key to getting a better picture of the total emissions coming from all of these sites,” Seymour said.


“(We need) a way to get more accurate emissions data from all of these sites, to better inform not only the inventory so the government has a better estimate of the emissions coming from the industries, but also to inform future regulations. Canada is targeting a 75 per cent reduction in methane, into 2030. And so to inform the regulations that it’s currently developing, it needs to have a better sense of how much methane is out there and where it’s coming from.”


He added that under Saskatchewan’s current regulations, we should actually be seeing deeper emissions reductions than what the government has reported, even without taking into consideration the uncounted methane.


If more accurate emissions measurements were in place, operators would have to make more adjustments, which could help them cut around 15 per cent of emissions from the current levels, Seymour said.


PENALTIES AND THE TROUBLE WITH REGULATION


In Saskatchewan, it’s not easy to enforce regulations surrounding methane emissions, Seymour said.


Because operators have so much flexibility on where they apply mitigation measures to cut emissions, it’s hard for a regulator to come and spot-check individual sites to see if they’re meeting their reporting requirements.


There are penalties for going over a specific emissions limit in Saskatchewan, but these aren’t focused on specific sites, but on an entire operator.


“So some operators might be well below their emission cap, some might be above and depending on where these excess emissions are coming from, some operators might get penalties, some might not really,” Seymour said.


“I think that there is an argument to be made for the idea that site specific or equipment specific regulations could be more easily enforced, just because you can assess the performance of an individual site. And you don’t necessarily have to try to scale this up to the full size of an operator’s entire fleet.


He pointed out that Saskatchewan’s emissions reduction goals are calculated in comparison to the amount of emissions released in 2012 — a number which may now be in question if methane emissions have been being undercounted in the province for years.


“If that emission estimate is also uncertain, it’s difficult to know what emission levels we’re targeting in the future,” he said. “So, 40 per cent reduction from 2012 (is the goal), but if that 2012 number is different or is updated constantly, it’s difficult to know what the future target is.”


The need for improved accuracy in emissions data is the main takeaway for Seymour.


“It’s been known that these emissions are underestimated from all sorts of production across the oil and gas sector. But what we really need is this improved structure of measurement and reporting,” he said.


“Without that it’s difficult to know how to design future regulations. And that will make it difficult for Canada to meet some of its climate targets.”


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