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How Much CO2 Comes from Alberta Natural Gas? Much More Than You Think

Matthew Bellemare, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How much CO2 do you think Alberta’s natural gas will emit between now and 2050? The answer is probably: much more than you realize. Or to put it another way: as much as the annual emissions of 1,000,000 cars. Read on if you want to know how I reach this figure.

Alberta is a major producer of natural gas. In this post, I’ll examine greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s natural gas. I’ll detail Alberta’s gas reserves, recent production rates, future production scenarios, and life cycle emissions, just as I did in my post on Alberta’s crude oil emissions.

Then, in a future post, I’ll total the emissions numbers for Alberta’s oil and gas and compare them to the carbon budget we must respect to limit global heating to 1.5℃. That will help us understand our global rank as a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

But before I go any further, I want to add a clarifying note about different types of gas resources:

Unconventional gas is an important resource, with reserves far outstripping conventional gas reserves in some jurisdictions, including Western Canadian ones. Many analysts think of it as the gas resource of the future.

Unconventional gas is also a now-you-see it, now-you-don’t kind of resource. Some statistical sources include it in their reserves reporting (EIA), while others do not, or report it separately (AER). The same is true of production reports — some sources include it (EIA), while others do not, or report it separately.

This tendency naturally complicates the analysis I’m performing here, but I’ll do my best to report accurately and distinguish between gas types when that information is relevant. Alberta has both conventional and unconventional gas, but it reports these resources separately. The United States Energy Information Administration, which provides our international data on gas reserves and production rates, combines these gas resources in its reporting.

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Alberta’s Gas Reserves

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers, starting with our gas reserves.

We’ll use the United States Energy Information Administration as our primary data source for Canada and other nations. You can download this data yourself — see my data sourcing post for complete details. At the moment, the latest data on the EIA site is for 2021, so I’ll base my analysis on that year.

For Alberta-specific data, we draw from the Alberta Energy Regulator, which currently reports conventional marketable natural gas reserves of 26.6 trillion cubic feet. Conventional marketable natural gas is what remains after processing to remove non-hydrocarbons and heavier natural gas liquids. I want to stress that we are talking about conventional gas.

There is some variance in the AER’s reporting, I should point out. In its 2022 Alberta Energy Outlook, which is the most recent release of this annual document, the AER reported remaining established reserves of 25.2 trillion cubic feet. I can’t account for the difference in these two reports, but for the sake of establishing Alberta’s global rank as a reserve holder, I’ll use the higher figure of 26.6 trillion cubic feet. Alberta also has unconventional gas in shale or siltstone — 3,424 trillion cubic feet (96,956,883 million cubic metres), as the Canada Energy Regulator reported in 2017. Unconventional gas is increasingly important in North American energy markets, but it’s unclear how much of Alberta’s unconventional gas will ultimately be produced. That depends on future technologies and market conditions. So I’ll exclude this figure for now.

Both the EIA and the AER provide the data in trillions of cubic feet. I downloaded the EIA data as a CSV spreadsheet, which I pasted into Google Sheets. Then I added an entry for the AER gas figure of 26.6 trillion cubic feet. To convert trillions of cubic feet to millions of cubic metres, I used a conversion factor of 0.028317, which I sourced from the CER. I stated the final figures in millions of cubic metres.

Canada as a whole has the world’s 15th largest reserves of conventional natural gas at 2,067,141 million cubic metres. That’s 15th out of the 90 or so nations that produce natural gas.

If we count Alberta as a separate jurisdiction, it would rank as the world’s 26th largest reserve holder at 753,232 million cubic metres — not a world-beating amount, but still a significant quantity of gas.

The following chart provides a visual representation of global gas reserves. Alberta is included in the totals for Canada, but I have also broken it out on its own.

Global natural gas reserves (2021)

Alberta’s Gas Production

For recent production, we’ll once again use the United States Energy Information Administration as our primary data source for countries around the world. As with reserves, the latest data currently on the EIA site is for 2021, so I’ll base my analysis on that year.

You can download EIA production data yourself — see my data sourcing post for complete details.

For Alberta, we draw our data from the Alberta Energy Regulator, which gave a figure of 276.7 million cubic metres per day (9.8 billion cubic feet per day) for 2021 production of all gas resources. That comes out to 9.49 billion cubic metres (3,577 billion cubic feet) for the entire year.

The EIA provides its data in billions of cubic feet. I downloaded the EIA data as a CSV spreadsheet, which I pasted into Google Sheets. Then I added the Alberta figure. To convert billions of cubic feet to millions of cubic metres, I used the same conversion factor of 0.028317, which I sourced from the CER. Then I restated the amounts in millions of cubic metres.

Canada as a whole was the world’s fifth-largest gas producer in 2021 at 182,216 million cubic metres. If we count Alberta as a separate jurisdiction, it would be the world’s eleventh-largest producer at 101,290 million cubic metres. The eleventh-largest producer out of 90 gas-producing jurisdictions. Not bad, Alberta.

The following chart provides a visual representation of global gas production. Once again, Alberta is included in the value for Canada, and is also shown on its own.

Global natural gas production (2021)

Canada Energy Regulator Production Scenarios

I wrote about CER production scenarios in a previous post about our fossil fuel emissions. As I mentioned at the time, I’m using the Evolving Policies Scenarios, which assume that global energy-related climate policies expand at the same pace as they have been in recent years.

The Evolving Policy Scenarios envision greater levels of climate action, both domestically and globally. They foresee lower levels of demand — and hence production — than the Current Policy Scenarios.

Given the international push towards net zero emissions, it’s almost inconceivable that our fossil fuel production will align with the Current Policy Scenarios. Even the Evolving Policy Scenarios are bullish on fossil fuels. But as I write this post in January 2023, they are the scenarios of record.

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I focussed on the gas production figures for Alberta and for Canada as a whole. Using these numbers, I prepared a chart. It shows that under the Evolving Policy Scenarios:

  • Canada’s gas production will rise until 2032, peaking at 161,878 million cubic metres that year. 
  • Alberta’s production was projected to peak in 2021 at 101,393 million cubic metres. (It actually rose to 182,216 cubic metres that year, according to the EIA; that’s bad news for the climate.)
  • Alberta’s share of Canada’s production is currently about 62 per cent. It will gradually decline to about 35 per cent in 2050. (British Columbia will account for most of the growth until 2032.)

I’ll share the numbers with you towards the end of this post. But for now, I want to give you a visual representation of the CER Evolving Policies Scenario.

Canada & Alberta Natural Gas Production per Canada Energy Regulator Evolving Policies Scenario

How to Download the CER Natural Gas Production Scenarios

I downloaded the CER Evolving Policy Scenario numbers. You can download them too if you like. It’s quite simple. You’ll find complete instructions in my data sourcing post.

Calculating Alberta’s Gas Emissions

I downloaded the Evolving Policies Scenario to create spreadsheets I could use to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions our crude oil would generate if production adhered to the Evolving Policy Scenarios. As I mentioned in a previous post on this subject, the basic equation used to calculate emissions is as follows:

units_of_fossil_fuel x energy_content x emissions_factor = GHG_emissions

where:

  • units of fossil_fuel = units of fuel produced — for example, barrels of oil or cubic metres of natural gas
  • energy_content = joules of energy per unit of fossil fuel
  • emissions_factor = grams of carbon per joule

As with crude oil, I looked for realistic yet conservative benchmarks for the life cycle emissions calculations. 

Benchmarks

For energy content, I used a figure of 39.03 megajoules (MJ) per cubic metre. This figure comes from Statistics Canada, Report on Energy Supply and Demand in Canada, Preliminary 2016 (PDF).

Upstream emissions can vary widely, depending on the method of production. I conducted a literature review to find credible low and high values. The purpose of this exercise was to provide a range of estimates that would give you an idea of the order of magnitude of our emissions. In the end, I used two separate emissions factors in two separate calculations — one for an “average Alberta gas” and one for an “average United States gas”:

For downstream emissions, I used an emissions factor of 49.7 grams of CO2-equivalent per cubic metre of gas, which is calculated from the 2021 National Inventory Report — Canada’s greenhouse gas inventory, which is submitted annually to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Calculating the Life Cycle Emissions

I used these factors to calculate the life cycle emissions we can expect if Alberta gas production follows the CER Evolving Policies Scenario between now and 2050. You can review the numbers and emissions calculations yourself in this Google Sheet.

For the “Alberta average” case, the relevant number is on the Gas—AB Average worksheet in Cell M36: 4,574 megatonnes. That’s how much CO2 our gas will emit  between now and 2050 if we produce and ship the amounts envisioned by the CER Evolving Policies Scenario: 4,574 megatonnes.

For the “United States average” case, the relevant number is on the Gas—US Average worksheet in Cell M36: 5,094 megatonnes. That’s how much CO2 our gas will emit between now and 2050 if we produce and ship the amounts envisioned by the CER Evolving Policies Scenario: 5,094 megatonnes.

So there you have it. Alberta’s natural gas will result in 4,574 to 5,094 megatonnes of CO2 if production follows the CER Evolving Policies Scenario between now and 2050.

Just how much CO2 is that?

It’s equivalent to the annual emissions of between 994,347,827 and 1,107,391,304 passenger vehicles (at 4.6 tonnes per vehicle).

It’s enough to fly between 10,632,264 and 11,841,004 people from Edmonton to Toronto and back (at 430.2 kg per passenger per round trip journey).

That’s a lot of CO2, Alberta. And it all originates in this beautiful province we call home.

Canada’s Energy Future 2023

After this post was first published, the CER issued its long awaited net-zero analysis. The production numbers changed, and so did the calculated emissions. You’ll find an update in my EF2023 gas analysis.

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