OG 101

Methane 101: What is methane and why does it matter?

Methane is both a component of natural gas and a potent GHG if released into the atmosphere. Canada’s oil and natural gas industry has committed to a 45 percent reduction of methane emissions by 2025.

What is methane?

Methane is an invisible and odourless gas found naturally below ground and under the ocean floor. It is also released into the atmosphere as a result of a number of natural biological processes. It is an organic compound with the chemical formula CH4, and it is a key constituent of natural gas, which produces energy when burned.

Why is methane important to climate change?

As a fuel source, natural gas is the cleanest burning hydrocarbon, producing half the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of coal when used to generate electricity.

If released directly into the atmosphere, methane contributes to GHG emissions. By volume, there are far fewer methane emissions globally than carbon dioxide emissions. However, methane is significantly more potent in its ability to trap heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Reducing methane emissions is an important way to tackle the climate change challenge. While some sources of methane are naturally occurring, there are a number of opportunities to reduce methane emissions caused or created through human activities, such as oil and gas development, certain agricultural practices and the use of landfills.

Sources of methane emissions

Methane is emitted from a number of human and natural sources. Sources include:

  • Fuel combustion from vehicles;
  • Hydrocarbon (coal, oil and natural gas) development;
  • Industrial processes such as aluminum production;
  • Electricity generation;
  • Wildfires and burning of crop waste;
  • Livestock and termites as they digest organic matter;
  • Decomposition of organic material in landfills and wetlands.

Methane emissions from oil and natural gas

In oil and natural gas operations, methane is emitted from small leaks from valves and other equipment used in oil and natural gas drilling and production. These leaks are unintended and can come from pump seals, pressure relief valves and control valves.

Also, methane is sometimes released during venting and if there is incomplete combustion during flaring (flaring and venting are the controlled burn or release of gases as part of normal oil and gas production operations, respectively)

What is Canada doing about methane emissions?

British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have regulations for flaring and venting from upstream industries. While flaring and venting are sometimes necessary as part of routine operations, regulations and industry best practices provide guidance to ensure these activities are controlled and avoided when possible.

In general, Canada has world-class regulations on methane and other GHG emissions reduction. Canada’s regulatory targets for emissions management were first introduced in 1998 through the Clean Air Strategic Alliance (CASA). They have been further enhanced in the years since; for example, Alberta introduced a requirement for LDAR (leak detection and repair) programs at gas plants and compressor stations in 2010. Most recently, both Alberta and B.C. have introduced climate leadership plans that include methane reduction targets. As well, the federal government worked with provincial and territorial governments to create the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change agreement, which includes a commitment to reduce oil and natural gas methane emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2025.

The oil and natural gas industry has committed to supporting provincial and federal methane emission reduction targets. This reduction will be made possible through improvements in processes, equipment and technology. Multiple innovations are being developed by industry, such as the use of solar panels to power pumps, and systems designed to capture vented gas from compressors—using this gas as fuel for compressor engines. Extensive research is also being done on technologies designed to enhance methane detection, quantification and mitigation.


Additional Reading

Environment and Climate Change Canada: Methane’s Global Warming Potential

CAPP Infographic: Natural Gas is Energy for Tomorrow