Federal government introduces methane reduction strategy while Doug Ford ramps up natural gas
In March 2022, Canada committed to a reduction in methane emissions, pledging a 40 to 45-percent decrease below 2012 levels by 2030. As one of the countries recognized by the United Nations for pioneering strategies toward a more sustainable future, the Liberal government will soon be announcing its methane regulations to guide this transition.
While Ottawa moves to establish firm guidelines and targets for an ambitious methane reduction timeline, Doug Ford and his PC government are taking Ontario in the opposite direction, using methane as its main source to expand electricity production in Ontario, where approximately 40 percent of the country’s population lives.
The two approaches are on a collision course.
Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada is on track to meet and even exceed the interim target for methane reduction, but failed to provide any details on what this will look like and where these reductions are coming from. At the same conference, the UN General Secretary singled out Canada as one of the largest expanders of fossil fuels in recent years. Other organizations, like the David Suzuki Foundation, reported that past and present monitoring of methane emissions is lacking, limiting the ability to verify the success of our targets.
Canada has brought its moratorium on methane to the global stage at COP 28 with the “Global Methane Pledge Ministerial” which builds on North American commitments to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 75 percent by 2030.
“We have both the responsibility and the know-how to do everything we can,” Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said in a press release this week. “At this time of robust profit margins and high energy prices, there has never been a better time for the oil and gas sector to invest in slashing methane emissions."
Despite a commitment to reduce methane emissions, the Canadian government continues to back oil and gas projects across the country, maintaining its position as the fourth largest exporter of oil and the sixth largest exporter of natural gas in the world.
While there are repeated calls from international bodies and environmental organizations to prioritize investments in renewable technologies, the Liberal government backed Equinor in its proposal to build the largest and first-of-its-kind, for Canada, offshore drilling project, which will be located off the coast of Newfoundland (it’s estimated that one billion barrels will be extracted over the lifespan of the operation). While the project is currently on hold for three years, a decision made by Equinor, the federal government repeatedly ignored demands from over 100 environmental organizations to reject one of the world’s largest offshore projects completely.
Natural gas is another fossil fuel, but much more potent as a greenhouse pollutant in the atmosphere compared to carbon-based emissions. It is primarily composed of methane.
Prior to COP 28, 12 major oil and gas companies globally committed to lowering methane emission to net zero by 2030. At the conference, another 50 companies committed to an 80 to 90 percent reduction this decade.
But while Canada pushes enthusiastic targets for one of the most potent greenhouse gases, there is a clear disconnect between federal ambition and provincial action when it comes to controlling the makeup of the energy grid, the second largest source of methane emissions globally.
The Ontario government has been promoting increased use of natural gas with proposals for expansions for existing gas plants climbing.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Over the past five years, Ontario has slowly increased the proportion of energy that comes from methane. In 2017, the province had one of the cleanest energy grids with only four percent coming from oil and gas. By 2022, that number was up to 10.4 percent. This increase correlates to a push by the Ford PC government to ramp up the use of natural gas for electricity generation.
“Ontario is the second biggest provincial emitter of greenhouse gasses. So it's absolutely essential for Ontario to be decreasing emissions in order to ensure that Canada can meet its Paris Agreement,” Lana Goldberg, Ontario Climate Program Manager at Environmental Defence, previously told The Pointer. “Yet, Ontario is moving in the opposite direction, including in the electricity sector, in which it's actually actively increasing emissions.”
In October 2022, the Independent Electricity Systems Operator (IESO) recommended Ontario acquire 4,000 megawatts of new electricity generation and storage to support projected demand across the province — the IESO projects demand will increase at a rate of 1.7 percent per year over the next 20 years, surpassing supply in 2025-2026 — including at least 1,500 megawatts of stand alone energy storage resources, up to 1,500 megawatts of natural gas generation and the remainder coming from other sources.
“The government is not waiting to act, and it is doing what it takes to help Ontario remain competitive and drive economic productivity and growth, while considering reliability and affordability on the path to electrification and a clean energy transition that works for consumers and job creators,” the 2023 provincial budget reads.
But the fact of the matter is that renewable energy technologies are not only the more sustainable solution environmentally, they are increasingly becoming economically more viable for countries to make the transition to a cleaner grid. Renewables have surpassed fossil fuels in many industries for being a cheaper alternative and are expected to fall in cost for the remainder of scenarios by 2050, meaning that investment in renewable energy sources will save governments billions of dollars.
Adoption of wind and solar energy is increasing globally, but not without pushback from the fossil fuel industry.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The production of solar energy has increased on average 44 percent per year for the past three decades while wind energy has increased approximately 23 percent. While fossil fuels still produce more energy than renewables globally, researchers from the Oxford Climate Institute believe renewables will tip the scales in the next decade. Total global investments in renewable energy for 2023 topped $1.8 trillion with well over half of that investment going into wind and solar technologies.
“So why would the Ford government ramp up gas plants which are more expensive than wind and solar, increase climate pollution by 700 percent, subject people who live in areas surrounding these gas plants to more toxic air pollution, which has significant human health effects, and put at risk $27 billion dollars in federal money coming to the province [under the Clean Energy Regulations],” Mike Schreiner, MPP for Guelph and leader of the Ontario Green Party, told The Pointer. “It just makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”
“It's going to put Ontario in a very difficult position to meet its climate objectives as well, especially when it comes to releasing methane gas, which we are increasingly learning is being emitted in higher and more potent ways than we originally thought.”
Methane is the main component of natural gas, making up 70 to 95 percent of the substance depending on composition, but it is often an overlooked problem as governments focus their attention on carbon emissions when talking about climate change. Nearly all levels of government, from small municipal governments, to Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill, have established emissions reductions targets. But these targets tend to focus on carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas.
Ontario has the target — which the PCs watered down from the previous Liberal government’s target — of achieving a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission, below 2005 levels, by 2030. While the government has received condemnation from environmental organizations for the new target, even facing a court case brought forth by seven Ontario youth, the Province is still failing to reach the lowered bar.
“You've got the federal government that is taking up a useful step to fight the climate crisis, and you've got the Ford government actively undermining our activities to take on the climate crisis,” Peter Tabuns, NDP critic for energy and the climate crisis, told The Pointer.
He stated that it is difficult to know at this point how Ontario’s actions will impact the federal methane targets but added, “increasing gas use means more emissions, there's just no getting around it.”
“The provincial government's push to build new gas plants to generate electricity comes after it chose to go backwards on renewable energy and lost several years in the effort to reduce Ontario's greenhouse gas emissions. Now their plan is to use natural gas to generate baseload power, not just to handle peak demand or to ensure reliability,” Ted Hsu, Liberal critic for energy, mines, natural resources and forestry, told The Pointer in a statement. “The last time Ontario had a Long Term Energy Plan was in 2017. Ontario is moving backwards on fighting climate change.”
Hsu added that the province has a role and a responsibility to act on climate change and implement emissions reductions projects on par with other levels of government.
“[Ontario] should join the federal government to ensure their speedy and efficient implementation,” he said in reference to the methane strategy.
Some oil and gas companies are proposing various methods of carbon capture and storage to remove emissions from the atmosphere but these technologies only work for carbon dioxide emissions.
In a world that urgently needs a rapid transition to limit global warming to the 1.5 or 2 degrees agreed upon in Paris in 2015, there is increasing austerity to fossil fuel companies, the largest contributor to the climate crisis. According to the UN, fossil fuels are responsible for approximately 75 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, rapidly accelerating the rate of temperature increase. In order to avoid going bankrupt, these companies are increasingly investing in technologies to make fossil fuel combustion “greener”, but many of these so-called solutions come with large caveats.
Increasingly oil and gas producers, as well as various levels of government including both the current provincial and federal governments, are touting the process of carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a primary solution to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. CCS is the process of capturing and removing carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere, transporting it and storing it underground. Due to restraints in technology, the process is not yet well adapted but could increasingly become a part of governmental climate plans.
The annual Emissions Gap report released last month by the United Nations Environment Programme, makes reference to CCS, stating that without these technologies, it will be increasingly difficult for the globe to reach its climate targets. But from the few CCS projects in place in Canada, their success is questionable.
According to a report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, there are seven CCS projects active across Canada capturing approximately 0.5 percent of national emissions. Based on available data, these projects remove approximately 2.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, approximately 1.3 percent of the sector’s pre-pandemic emissions and 2.6 percent of the reductions needed for the sector to contribute its fair share to federal emissions targets.
Perhaps more damning, 70 percent of the emissions captured through Canada’s seven projects are used to increase the production of aging oil fields, facilitating continued growth in the fossil fuel sector — the industry is anticipating 30 percent growth compared to 2020 by the end of the decade.
But not all greenhouse gases are equal. While various forms of CCS, from natural sequestration through tree planting, to some advanced man-made technologies, can remove a large volume of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it does little to nothing to tackle the methane problem. Once methane is released into the atmosphere, it is relatively impossible to remove. Using CCS as an argument for the expansion of fossil fuel industries will contribute to a greater concentration of methane in the atmosphere, causing unique and severe environmental consequences.
“Canadians deserve clean air. We know that methane emissions contribute to smog and climate change, which hurts our collective health and strains our health care systems,” federal Minister of Health, Mark Holland, said in a press release.
The methane cycle.
The oil and gas industry is the second largest emitter of methane next to the industrial agriculture industry. Proximity to a gas plant can also have a major impact on human health. While methane itself does not directly compromise human health, it is associated with many pollutants that do.
According to the Government of Canada website, methane emissions are often mixed with highly toxic air pollutants from the oil and gas industry, including fine particulate matter. In addition, when sunlight reacts with methane it contributes to the formation of ozone which is the main cause of smog, increasing rates of cancer and inciting asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Methane also has its own impacts on the environment and the atmosphere, differing itself from carbon dioxide. Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide for the first 20 years of its presence in the atmosphere, contributing to high degrees of warming. Greenhouse gases work as a blanket across the atmosphere, inhibiting the ability of heat to escape. In the case of methane, these efforts are well received. Research from Carleton University’s Energy and Emissions Research Lab (EERL) dictates that methane has been responsible for between 20 to 30 percent of global warming to date.
Not only does methane contribute to climate change directly through emissions, but its breakdown also releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, continuing the effects. Methane primarily leaves the atmosphere through oxidization, in the process forming water vapor and carbon dioxide.
While methane has only begun to be studied more in depth in the past three decades, its shorter lifespan provides a unique opportunity for reducing emissions in the atmosphere. While carbon dioxide can live in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years, the atmospheric lifespan of methane is nine years. The EERL has implied that if methane emissions are reduced even 30 percent by 2030, the impacts will be felt almost immediately and can reduce global warming by half a degree by the end of the century.
While the topic of methane is increasing in conversations around decision-making tables, there is still a long way to go to truly understand how much methane Canada is producing and exactly where it is coming from. In response to the growing crisis, the EERL recently completed the country’s first oil and gas methane census to inform the federal government’s pathway to reducing emission from this sector by 75 percent. The results of the census give Canada the first verified numbers to work with.
On Thursday, Minister Guilbeault and Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Jonathan Wilkinson announced the OIl and Gas Emissions Cap framework, capping emissions from the sector 35 to 38 percent below 2019 levels by 2030. Wilkonson noted in a press conference that the majority of the reductions can be expected from the Alberta oil sands and through the aforementioned methane strategy.
“The fossil fuel industry is finally starting to wake up,” UN Secretary General Guterres said. “But the promises made clearly fall short of what is required.”
Email: [email protected]
At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories to ensure every resident of Brampton, Mississauga and Niagara has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you
Submit a correction about this story