Methane burning through global carbon budget

While industry hails the staying power of natural gas, a new IPCC report calls for rapid GHG reductions to limit warming

Gas flaring. Torch against the sky.

The oil and gas industry needs to move quickly to capture methane that currently leaks from its operations, even as the world faces urgent calls to transition off fossil-fuel energy entirely.

While rising concentrations of human-generated carbon in the atmosphere will continue to heat up the earth, we can still avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change by rapidly moving away from carbon-based energy, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in a report released Monday.

The IPCC report provides ammunition to critics who dispute industry’s claim that natural gas is an environmentally acceptable choice that, when combined with carbon capture and storage technology, will remain viable for years.

“For existing natural gas, we do need much stronger regulations to make sure industry deals with methane leakage,” says Julia Levin, senior program manager at Toronto-based Environmental Defence. “But the problems with natural gas go well beyond methane leaks. As the IPCC report shows, there is no room for new natural gas projects in the global carbon budget.” She specifically targets liquefied natural gas projects that are being built and others that are proposed in British Columbia.

The industry is pushing back, however, arguing that natural gas will remain a major energy source in Canada and around the world for decades to come and that this country should aim to be a global supplier of the fuel.

“We don’t see natural gas as a bridge fuel or a transition fuel; we think it’s a foundational fuel,” says Tim Egan, president of the Canadian Gas Association.

The carbon budget measures how much more greenhouse gas can be emitted before the planet reaches the point where the target for holding average temperature increases to 1.5°C is essentially out of reach. At the rate of emissions seen in 2020, the world would exhaust its carbon budget within 11.5 years, based on a 1.5°C target.

Meeting the climate targets will require a net-zero energy system, combined with urgent reductions of short-lived climate pollutants such as methane and the scaling-up of efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the air, the IPCC report concluded.

The authors of the report – which was approved by 195 governments – based their conclusions on some 14,000 research studies from climate scientists around the world. They note the world has already experienced roughly 1°C of warming, which is responsible for extreme weather events such as the droughts and heat waves that are plaguing western North America.

The report places an increased emphasis on the importance of the short-lived carbon pollutants, such as methane, which is 80 times more powerful as a heat-trapped gas than is carbon dioxide.

“Drastic cuts in CO2, and eventually net-zero CO2 emissions, will be critical to limiting the maximum extent of future warming,” Ilissa Ocko, senior scientist with the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund, said Monday. “But cutting methane emissions is the single fastest, most effective way there is to slow the rate of warming right now.”

Methane emissions currently account for a quarter of average global temperature increases, a percentage that is second only to carbon dioxide. Targeting methane emissions is “the leading opportunity to slow the rate” of global warming over the short-term, Ocko said.

She said the world needs a two-tracked approach: focus on longer-term decarbonization by transitioning off fossil fuels while tackling the short-lived pollutants in the near-term.

Canada and the United States agreed in 2016 to aim for a 40% to 45% reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 2025, though former president Donald Trump backed away from that commitment. The federal government passed regulations aimed at achieving that target, though environmental groups argue the rules will not achieve their stated aim.

The Biden administration is now determined to not only meet, but exceed that commitment, said Rick Duke, White House liaison for the special presidential envoy for climate change, during a conference call on Monday.

Duke said the U.S. government is working with like-minded nations, including Canada, to accelerate the reduction of methane emissions from industry, agriculture and landfills. The most economical measures exist in the oil and gas sector, where captured methane represents added fuel supply that can be sold to customers.

The Calgary-based Pembina Institute has urged Ottawa to require the oil and gas industry to reduce its methane emissions by 75% from 2012 levels by 2030 and to invest in greater efforts to detect fugitive emissions.

The Gas Association’s Egan says companies are already spending on technology to reduce their methane emissions, driven both by regulation and the economics of capturing more of their fuel.

As to the staying power of natural gas, Egan says the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) notes that natural gas accounts for 35% of Canada’s end-use energy and forecasts that it will rise to 40% over the next 20 years. (The CER forecast is not consistent with Canada’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, however.)

“Natural gas is our most affordable and most reliable energy source,” Egan says. “We think natural gas is here for the duration.”

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based writer who focuses on climate change and the low-carbon energy economy.

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