The pipeline link to climate change (and what’s being done about it)

Climate change. It’s the focus of December’s COP 21 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris and it’s an issue that affects all of us. For Canada’s transmission pipelines companies, it means that finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a priority. What does that mean exactly? Well, in this post we’ll discuss one way pipeline operations contribute to climate change, and what’s being done to limit the impact.

How do pipelines contribute to climate change?

Most people think of carbon dioxide when they think about greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s not the only culprit – methane is actually 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming potential.

Methane emissions come from natural sources such as wetlands, and from many different man-made sources, like industrial and agricultural activity, including pipeline operations involving natural gas.

Pipelines are responsible for 1 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas is composed of 90 per cent methane, and, during pipeline operations, it is sometimes released into the air via small pipeline leaks, during maintenance activities and due to incomplete combustion at compressor stations.

According to Dave Picard, principal at Clearstone Engineering, an environmental engineering firm that specializes in air emission assessments and industrial air pollution control, the pipeline industry’s contribution to overall methane emissions in Canada isn’t huge.

“Methane emissions are greatest in the upstream* portion of the oil and natural gas industry,” said Dave. “The contributions from natural gas transmission, storage and distributions systems are much smaller, amounting to less than 10 per cent of total methane emissions by the oil and natural gas sector.”

But that’s certainly enough to make it an important part of the pipeline industry’s climate change policies and programs.Greenhouse gases from cows

Fact: Methane is a by-product of the digestive process of cows. With 1.4 million cows and heifers in Canada, they produce 18,000 kilotons of methane every year – about three times the amount emitted by the pipeline industry!

Why is methane a concern for the pipeline industry?

 Overall methane accounts for about 15 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions – but methane releases have other implications that concern our industry members, like:

  • It contributes to the breakdown of the ozone layer
  • It is flammable
  • At high concentrations it can cause asphyxiation
  • It is a non-renewable resource

These are all causes for concern for pipeline operators, and are part of the reason we’re working to pushing to reduce methane emissions.

What are pipeline companies doing to reduce methane emissions?

To help minimize their methane emissions, pipeline companies have introduced more efficient engines at compressor stations, as well as maintenance protocols that call for ongoing leak prevention maintenance and leak detection activities. The industry also participates in ‘Click Before You Dig’ campaigns to help prevent third party damage.

“Pipeline companies are undertaking a broad variety of initiatives including applying best design and risk-based maintenance practices, directed inspection and maintenance programs to manage fugitive equipment leaks at facilities [and] regular pipeline integrity analyses. [They are also] using pull-down compressors to recover gas from pipeline blowdown events, maintaining call-in centers and running public awareness programs to avoid dig-ins, promoting demand-side management, and much more.” – Dave Picard

The push to further reduce emissions will continue, as pipeline operators strive for continuous improvement on climate change as well as other environmental and safety issues.

You can read more in our new methane management fact sheet and our climate change fact sheet.

*The companies that explore for, develop and produce Canada’s petroleum resources are known as the upstream sector of the petroleum industry. (Source: the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP))

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 117,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2014, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.