Methane gas plume spotted near Lloydminster prompts calls for better emissions regulation

A flare stack lights the sky from the Imperial Oil refinery in Edmonton in 2018. A large methane gas plume was spotted near Lloydminster, Alta. last month. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A flare stack lights the sky from the Imperial Oil refinery in Edmonton in 2018. A large methane gas plume was spotted near Lloydminster, Alta. last month. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Experts say a large methane gas plume spotted on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan demonstrates the need for better emissions regulation.

A European Space Agency satellite picked up the plume near Lloydminster last month. Kayrros, an energy and environmental geo-analytics company, noticed and analyzed the data it captured.

A report from the firm estimated the plume had an emissions rate of 11 metric tonnes an hour, roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of 200 cars.

Methane emissions are also more potent to global warming than carbon dioxide, especially in the 20 years after entering the atmosphere.

Christian Lelong, director of climate solutions for Kayrros, says regulators need to amp up efforts to prevent the creation of similar events.

"We often see these kinds of events in proximity to gas pipelines," Lelong said in an interview. "Now we have the tools to detect [greenhouse gasses] by region, company, and facility.

"The good news is this is a very important step in addressing the problem in helping companies and the industry as a whole in reducing its carbon footprint and working toward climate initiatives."

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is responsible for overseeing pipeline and energy development, including controlled burns and gasses purposefully released into the atmosphere.

The AER accesses data from the same satellite but said the cloud was not flagged.

Optical gas imaging

Regulations in Canada are mostly based on surveys that use optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras at oil and gas sites to detect sources of methane leaks.

But a study published last year suggests there is a stark difference between what the OGI surveys find and what new airplane-mounted technology can see. It surmised that policy and regulations relying on OGI could be missing a significant portion of emissions.

More than half of methane emissions were attributed to storage tanks, reciprocating compressors and unlit flares, according to the study. Storage tanks alone accounted for a quarter of methane emissions at oil and gas sites.

These sources are harder to detect with OGI surveys because they are elevated and might be missed by a camera at ground level.

Matthew Johnson, the study's co-author and head of the energy and emissions research lab at Carleton University, said in an email he is not surprised by the recent plume's location.

"It would be helpful to know the actual location and extent of the 'plume,' Johnson said. "The area has historically seen very high levels of direct/intentional venting of gas during cold heavy oil production with sand."

AER investigation

The AER said in an emailed statement that it had conducted an investigation into the plume. Companies are required to notify the agency and the public before flaring or venting operations.

"Our team conducted a thorough investigation of venting events reported and found no significant venting events in the area reported to the AER at that time," the statement read, adding that elevated methane concentrations does not indicate non-compliance or an industry-related event.

Jan Gorski, director of the Pembina Institute's oil and gas program, said consistent regulation is vital to spotting emissions.

"The source, location, and generation of methane emissions is unpredictable, which is why we need good measurement and monitoring to catch these rare events," he said.

"If it's something caught by satellite it shows that it was a pretty significant source of methane emissions."

Gorski said the current data on the average level of methane gas emissions from the gas sector is based on studies from more than a decade ago.

He said information need to be updated in order to improve regulations and monitoring.

The federal government's climate plan to reach net-zero by 2050 has an interim goal to cut emissions across all sectors 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

That would require a 42 per cent cut in oil and gas emissions, something Gorski says won't be accomplished until there is a more narrow and accurate estimation of emissions in the energy sector.