Volkswagen has admitted to cheating on emissions tests of some of its diesel vehicles. The full story has not yet been made public, but Volkswagen seems not to be an isolated case. There are indications of widespread gaming of emissions testing in the European automobile industry, with regulators and governments turning a blind eye to cheats and being reluctant to introduce testing procedures that would measure actual emissions in real-world conditions.
There are some parallels with the estimation of emissions in the natural gas industry in British Columbia, where officially-sanctioned emissions rates are far lower than in other jurisdictions, compliance inspections are non-existent and methodologies do not include state-of-the art field measurements.
Volkswagen gamed the system
Anyone from North America driving a modern diesel car while on vacation in Europe must have wondered why these economical and high-performance vehicles were not more popular back home. Now we know. Volkswagen introduced a line of diesel vehicles to the U.S. and Canada, but the company only managed to meet nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions tests by cheating, using so-called defeat devices — software that changed the vehicle’s settings when it sensed that a test was underway. Low NOx emissions are technically feasible, but they entail trade-offs with higher vehicle costs, reduced performance and increased fuel consumption.
As the scandal unfolds, we are starting to learn how Volkswagen — and probably other manufacturers as well — has been gaming vehicle-testing procedures in Europe, not just with NOx emissions, but also with carbon-particle and carbon dioxide emissions. Tests done in unrealistic laboratory-type settings do not reflect real-world performance on the road.
Independent non-profit organizations, such as Transport and Environment, have argued for some time that more rigorous and independent testing was required. However, European governments that placed their bets on promoting diesel engines for cars were reluctant to introduce realistic testing procedures. Carmakers also lobbied regulators to resist or delay any changes to the testing protocols.
As Transport and Environment reports, air pollution in Europe causes hundreds of thousands premature deaths every year, much of it from particulates and NOx from the tailpipes of diesel vehicles. In recent years, pollution levels in Paris and London have become so bad that municipal authorities have been forced to take extreme measures to restrict and eventually ban diesel vehicles from operating in the cities.
Asian and North American car manufacturers have not moved to introduce diesel engines for small vehicles, instead opting to develop more efficient gasoline vehicles such as hybrids. BMW announced earlier this year that all of their cars would have electric drivetrains within 10 years. Perhaps all of these manufacturers were aware that the claims made for diesel cars were too good to be true.
Super, Natural British Columbia
In British Columbia, the reported fugitive emissions of methane from the natural gas industry are very low compared to better-studied U.S. gas industry emissions. As Stephen Leahy reported in 2013 in a series of articles at DeSmog, the official methane leakage from B.C.’s natural gas operations in 2010 was 0.3 per cent of the total gas production.
In a recent Corporate Knights piece, I noted that the emissions have fallen to 0.28 per cent in 2012 and, in a complementary blog article, to 0.23 per cent in 2013. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that current leakage rates are around 1.5 per cent, more than six times as much as B.C.’s 2013 estimates.
However, recent research has shown that even those EPA figures are too low.
The EPA, like the B.C. Government, uses an inventory approach, in which laboratory-measured leakage rates for individual valves and meters are used to estimate leakage rates from the many devices employed in the field. But a series of recent, independent studies led by the Environmental Defense Fund has found that emissions measured in the real world by sampling the air around gas production operations are 1.25 to 1.5 times as high, making for a likely range of 1.9 per cent to 2.6 per cent. (See, for example, Brandt at al., 2014).
That’s as much as 11 times higher than B.C.’s current estimate. Those numbers look too good to be true. None of the real world, in-the-field measurements (top-down studies) that are being performed in the U.S. have been done in B.C.
In addition to its inventory approach to calculating methane leakage rates, B.C. also relies on self-reported estimates of emissions from operators in the field. There is no evidence that any company in B.C. has been underreporting its emissions or flouting the regulations.
But there is little or nothing done in the way of spot-checks by the regulatory body, the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, to identify rogue operators.
In neighboring Alberta, a recent compliance sweep done by that province’s regulator resulted in shutting down an operation by Murphy Oil when it was discovered that Murphy was venting rather than flaring methane, contrary to regulations.
Should a B.C. company be misbehaving in this way, we would be none the wiser.
If the actual methane leakage rate in B.C. were in the American range of 1.9 per cent to 2.6 per cent, then the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from fugitive emissions alone would be in the range of 14,000 to 19,000 kilo tonnes per year.
This amount would exceed the emissions from all of the road transportation in the province and add 25 per cent to the province’s overall emissions figures.
This is not, therefore, some trivial technical issue, but a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that is not being measured adequately and is likely being greatly underreported.
The B.C. Liberal government is politically committed to expanding the province’s gas industry with liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports and, at the same time, meeting ambitious emissions reduction targets. It is not difficult to see why the politicians would be happy for the leakage estimates to stay just where they are.
It’s not too late
Europe’s governments and auto industry were content with what we now know to be unrealistic emissions estimates from diesel tailpipes, dragging their feet to prevent state-of-the-art measurements from being done.
Similarly, B.C. and the province’s gas industry would, it seems, prefer not to conduct the rigorous site inspections and allow the independent field measurements that could verify, or not, the current estimates of B.C.’s supposedly world-beating fugitive methane emissions.
The Volkswagen scandal was uncovered in studies conducted by independent researchers in real-world conditions. The fallout has severely damaged the reputations of European regulators and has cast a cloud of suspicion over the entire European automobile manufacturing industry.
Had European authorities applied independent, realistic testing protocols years earlier, much of this reputational damage could have been avoided. And, of course, a great deal of deadly pollution could have been prevented, as well.
The big LNG-driven expansion of B.C.’s gas production — if it happens at all — is still a few years away and it’s not too late for the province to get its act together and to start independent studies measuring methane emissions in the field. Accurate information is ultimately in everyone’s best interest. Newly discovered leaks and poor practices can be fixed, but damaged reputations are not so easy to mend.