Even when Canada’s production of natural gas and oil was on the increase during the five-year period from 2014 through 2018, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from flaring decreased — a lot.
According to research by the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), which recently released an analysis of flaring and emissions data from the World Bank, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the International Energy Agency, Canada’s emissions from flaring decreased by 38 per cent even as petroleum production increased by 22 per cent.
It’s an excellent example of how Canada’s natural gas and oil industry is a global leader in sustainable development—and why Canada can lead the way to an energy-abundant but lower-carbon energy future. Canada’s flaring reduction also contrasts with many other nations that have done little to control this key aspect of emissions from oil and natural gas production.
The analysis showed 145 billion cubic metres (bcm) of flared gases were emitted worldwide in 2018, resulting in about 280 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent GHG emissions – approximately one per cent of global GHG emissions. In that year, Canada’s flaring emissions totalled 1.3 bcm, ranking 22nd out of 30 countries included in the analysis.
The CEC analysis compared flaring in the globe’s top 30 petroleum-producing countries for the period 2014 through 2018. The analysis indicates that 10 countries flared more in 2018 compared with 2014, while 20 countries flared less.
However, some of those decreases were not the result of deliberate efforts to improve environmental performance. For example, Venezuela decreased flaring by 18 per cent but this was driven by steep production declines — 43 per cent less oil production in 2018 compared to 2014.
Meanwhile, the U.S. increased production of petroleum and other liquids by 27 per cent and natural gas production by 18 per cent. However, unlike Canada, U.S. flaring increased by 25 per cent.
Canada’s world-leading flaring regulations
“Flaring was considered a safe and efficient means to dispose of waste gases,” comments Tim Taylor, a sessional instructor in environmental science at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, “but more recently attitudes have changed and the industry is continually decreasing its use of flaring.”
Taylor points to work done by the Clean Air Strategic Alliance (CASA), a coalition among industry, government and environmental groups. Through consensus-based decisions, CASA developed a framework to understand and reduce flaring. Taylor also credits work by Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), which is particularly focused on reducing methane emissions from flaring and other sources.
Canada’s approach to reducing the need for flaring in the upstream energy industry is world leading. In Alberta, the Alberta Energy Regulator regulates flaring, venting and incinerating at oil and natural gas operations and the industry is continually working to reduce flaring. From 1996 to 2014, natural gas flaring in Alberta was reduced by 63 per cent. The British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission has regulatory requirements for flaring, venting and incinerating at any well site or facility. As a result, B.C. has eliminated all routine flaring as defined by the B.C. Energy Plan. And in Canada’s offshore industry, production restrictions are imposed if flaring is excessive.
“This analysis by the CEC illustrates the culture of continuous improvement and commitment to air quality management and reducing emissions throughout Canada’s upstream natural gas and oil industry,” comments Don McCrimmon, manager, Air, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The CEC’s analysis also confirms the findings of a separate study published in 2018, which estimated that if Canada’s flaring regulations were adopted by other energy producing nations, global GHG emissions from oil and natural gas production could be lowered by up to 23 per cent. The challenge, says Taylor, is getting other petroleum producing countries to emulate Canada’s advanced technologies and robust regulations in order to address global emissions from flaring.
Ultimately, Canada’s robust environmental standards in areas such as flaring, as well as our focus on continuous improvement and innovations to produce oil and natural gas with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, could prove to be a competitive advantage. As the world embarks on economic recovery, Canada’s responsibly produced natural gas and oil can have a larger role in global markets to displace other fuels that are not produced or transported with the same commitment to environmental performance.