Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Canada is setting out to make significant cuts in greenhouse gas methane, and StFX is playing its part

February 15th, 2019
L-r, Jennifer Baillie and Elizabeth O’Connell

Two major studies out of StFX’s FluxLab, led by earth sciences professor Dr. Dave Risk, have been published in prominent international journals, Environmental Research Communications and Elementa Science, in the span of six weeks, in their ongoing efforts focused on understanding methane gas leaks.

Methane is a colorless and odourless greenhouse gas that constituents 95 per cent of natural gas. When released into the air it acts as a powerful greenhouse gas. The Canadian government has pledged to cut natural gas waste from oil and gas operations by 45 per cent, and in 2018 released federal methane regulations. However, Dr. Risk says, one big problem is understanding how much methane is really out there and where it’s coming from. 

The FluxLab is developing new mobile technologies to measure methane faster and more conveniently. They have undertaken huge studies across different oil and gas producing regions in Canada. 

Of the two recently published articles, the first, authored by Elizabeth O’Connell, who started in the lab as a B.Sc. student, worked as a research associate and is now president of spinoff company Arolytics, documents characteristics of over 3,000 gas plumes the team tracked down in three developments across Alberta, and sourced to specific types of oil and gas infrastructure. 

The other study, written by research associate Jennifer Baillie is similar but looks across southeastern Saskatchewan to compare the environmental performance of hydraulic fracturing operations co-located nearby conventional oil operations. 

Both studies show that emission levels are often higher than official inventories suggest. These findings, Ms. Baillie says, parallel 2017 results in Emmaline Atherton’s paper, also from Dr. Risk’s group, documenting elevated emissions in British Columbia from shale gas operations.  

The news isn’t all bad, however, she says. There are examples of environmentally responsible production, which suggests industry does have the expertise required to mitigate methane. In some jurisdictions, the FluxLab found a relationship between gas composition and methane performance, where industry had already taken steps to reduce emissions in areas where odour complaints were frequent. In some of the developments that emitted more than expected conserving the gas will be more economically attractive. 

In the past several weeks, as the papers from Dr. Risk’s group were published, all three western provinces released their own methane regulations, with the intent to override the backstop federal regulations with a more regionally nuanced approach. FluxLab’s data sets can now be used to test the merits of these different approaches, and to project the resultant mitigation success using real field data rather than the estimated values.

Dr. Risk’s group continues to collaborate with industry, provincial and federal government, and non-government organizations, and works in overlapping areas of science, policy, and advocacy. All stakeholders are looking for data at the moment so as to inform their next steps, they say.

“It’s really interesting to hear perspectives from all sides, and we’re also still doing measurement tech development and working with other tech developers too," says Dr. Risk. “We have to be flexible, understand different approaches and outcomes, and most importantly we need to be effective communicators.”

Currently, he says, the research group is charged with building a national methane measurement archive, based on measurements they have made plus measurements by other research teams and government departments. This initiative is funded by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers as part of a large ongoing methane research program. The new data sets will serve the needs of industry and policymakers until industry’s own measurements start flowing in 2020 as part of the new regulated approach to replace the old practice of estimation.

The FluxLab consists of 16 individuals, comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, professional technicians and research associates. Their work is in gas measurement for renewable and fossil energy, and for arctic studies. Almost all members of the research group are involved in collaborations with outside partners. Over the past decade, the group has also launched two spinoff companies, the most recent of which is a methane analytics company called Arolytics with offices in Halifax and Calgary.

This research is, in part, made possible by the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.



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