Alberta’s new carbon tax

Alberta’s new carbon tax

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on December 31, 2015 Sunday November 22nd, 2015, Alberta’s new centre-left Premier, Rachel Notley, announced that the province would be introducing an economy-wide carbon tax priced at $30 per tonne of CO2 equivalent, to be phased in in 2016 and 2017. Observers had been expecting new efforts to mitigate emissions since Notley’s election in May 2015, but the scope and ambition of this policy took many by surprise.

Alberta, of course, is the home of the Athabasca oil sands and is one of the largest per-capita GHG emitters of any jurisdiction in the world. The new plan was nevertheless endorsed by environmental groups, First Nations and by the biggest oil companies, an extraordinary consensus that many would not have thought possible.

How was this done? I will try and explain the new policy as far as I can (the details are not all available yet), but the short answer is that a huge amount of credit is due to the panel of experts led by University of Alberta energy economist Andrew Leach and his fellow panelists. Not only did they listen to what all Albertans had to say, but they were thoughtful in framing a policy that is acceptable to almost everyone.

The background

Alberta is the wealthiest province in Canada, with a population of 4.1 million.  In 2013, greenhouse gas emissions were 267 Mt CO2 equivalent, about 65 tonnes per capita, which compares with the average for the rest of Canada of about 15 tonnes. Among US states only North Dakota and Wyoming are worse. Alberta’s fugitive emissions of methane alone amount to 29 Mt CO2e, about 7 tonnes per person, which is a little more than the average for all GHGs per-capita emissions in the world.

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Volkswagen Got Caught Cheating Emissions Reporting. Will B.C.?

Originally published at DeSmog Canada on October 7th, 2015.

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. Continue reading

B.C. lowballing fugitive methane emissions from natural gas industry

This was first published at Corporate Knights. I have added in this re-post some footnotes with details of calculations along with comments and references below the main article. I have also done a rough estimation of the emissions associated with the addition of one 18 million tonne per year LNG project (excluding end-use emissions) and the effect that this will have on BC’s emissions targets.

Photo by Jesús Rodríguez Fernández (creative commons)

The push by British Columbia to develop a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export industry raises questions about the impact such activities would have on greenhouse gas emissions, both within the province and globally.

One of the single most important factors relates to the amount of methane and carbon dioxide that gets released into the atmosphere, either deliberately through venting or by accident as so-called fugitive emissions. Fugitive emissions are the result of valves and meters that release, by design, small quantities of gas. But they can also come from faulty equipment and from operators that fail to follow regulations.

According to the B.C. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report 2012, there were 78,000 tonnes of fugitive methane emissions [1] from the oil and natural gas industry that year. B.C. produced 41 billion cubic metres of gas in 2012 [2]. This means about 0.28 per cent of the gas produced was released into the atmosphere [3].

By North American standards, this is a very low estimate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses a figure of 1.5 per cent leakage [4], more than five times higher. Recent research led by the U.S. non-profit group, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), shows that even the EPA estimates may be too low by a factor of 1.5 [5]. B.C.’s estimate, in other words, would be about one-eighth of what has been estimated for the American gas industry.
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The history of emissions and the Great Acceleration

One of my pastimes is downloading data and playing around with it on Excel. I’m not kidding myself that doing this means anything in terms of original research, but I do find that I learn quite a lot about the particularities of the data and about the science in general by doing some simple calculations and graphing the numbers. There’s even occasionally a small feeling of discovery, a bit like the kind that you experience when you follow a well-trodden path in the mountains for the first time:

We were not pioneers ourselves, but we journeyed over old trails that were new to us, and with hearts open. Who shall distinguish? J. Monroe Thorington

Anyway, I downloaded some historical emissions data from the CDIAC site and played around with it. To repeat, there’s nothing new to science here, but there were a few things that I found that were new to me. First, let’s look at historical emissions of CO2 from man-made sources from 1850 to 2010. Note that for all of these graphs there are no data shown for 2011-2015.

What immediately struck me—something I hadn’t fully appreciated before—was how small oil consumption was before 1950. Both world wars were carried out without huge increases in oil use, despite the massive mobilizations of armies, navies and air forces. You can make out some downward blips in coal consumption for the Great Depression (~1930) and around the end of WW2 (~1945).

It wasn’t until after 1950 that fossil-fuel consumption went nuts. Some people have taken to calling this inflection point The Great Acceleration, there’s more on this later. Continue reading

Shell: internal carbon pricing and the limits of big oil company action on climate

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on March 24th, 2015.

Shell evaluates all of its projects using a shadow carbon tax of $40 per tonne of carbon dioxide. That’s great. But why is the company still exploring in the Arctic and busy exploiting the Alberta oil sands?

Of all of the big fossil-fuel companies, Shell has adopted perhaps the most constructive position on climate change mitigation. Recently, the company’s CEO, Ben van Buerden told an industry conference:

You cannot talk credibly about lowering emissions globally if, for example, you are slow to acknowledge climate change; if you undermine calls for an effective carbon price; and if you always descend into the ‘jobs versus environment’ argument in the public debate.

Shell employs engineer David Hone as their full-time Climate Change Advisor. Hone has written a small ebook Putting the Genie Back: 2°C Will Be Harder Than We Think, priced at just 99¢ and he writes a climate change blog that should be part of every climate-policy geek’s balanced diet.

Shell also has a position they call Vice President CO2, currently occupied by Angus Gillespie. Here’s Gillespie talking recently at Stanford on the company’s internal shadow carbon pricing strategy (hat-tip to John Mashey). It’s worth watching if only for Gillespie’s vivid example of the limitations of looking at averages. The slides can be downloaded here.

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Fracking 2: There’s no endorsement of fracking from Skeptical Science or climate experts

The blog Skeptical Science is mainly concerned with “Explaining climate change science & rebutting global warming misinformation” and is mostly devoted to debunking the often nonsensical and incoherent notions that dispute the physical science of climate change. Occasionally though, the contributors to the blog—including me—write about solutions and policy. When we write about energy matters, we tend to focus on climate effects, but not so much on things like aquifer pollution from unconventional oil and gas operations.

In a blog post he titled Global warming believers for natural gas, Nick Grealy claimed that a post on Skeptical Science discussing the famous 2004 “wedges ” paper by Pacala and Socolow somehow endorsed the greatly expanded use of unconventional natural gas. just because it mentioned that one of Pacala and Socolow’s 15 wedges was about gas substituting for coal. Dana Nuccitelli quickly put him right in the comments.

Recently, Skeptical Science has run a series of posts about the recent research on fugitive methane releases from oil and gas operations. These include:

To frack or not to frack?

Methane emissions from oil and gas development

More research confirming methane leakage from shale boom

I also have written on British Columbia’s suspiciously low self-reported fugitive emissions. I published that work on this blog rather than on Skeptical Science, because this particular issue has a local rather than global focus.

Skeptical Science does not endorse fracking and the contributors there have consistently expressed concerns that fugitive emissions of methane may erode the emissions advantage that gas has over coal. Continue reading

Fugitive emissions from BC’s natural gas industry

The environmental consequences of the expanded development of unconventional gas in North Eastern British Columbia, as laid out by Tyler Bryant and Matt Horne in The Tyee, include: risks of groundwater contamination from fracking; water use; the provision of electricity; the triggering of earthquakes; and the industrialisation of the landscape over large swaths of the NE of the Province. Apart from the emissions released by end use of the gas,  the largest single environmental impact—certainly the largest global impact—is likely to stem from leaks and deliberate venting of greenhouse gases during the production and transportation of the natural gas. Unfortunately, this is also one of the most poorly quantified risks.

According to British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment, about 108,000 metric tons of methane are being released into the atmosphere every year by the oil and gas industry. These emissions come from deliberate venting and through unintentional leaks—also known as fugitive emissions—from pipelines, wells and processing plants. While this sounds like a lot, according to the Ministry it only amounts to 0.3% of the total amount of natural gas produced in BC in 2011. However, compared to estimated leakage rates in the gas industry of the United States, which range widely from about 1 to 8%, these estimates are very low outliers. Even the lowest of the US estimates is three times as large as the BC figures.

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