The federal government has proposed accepting British Columbia's rules to cut methane emissions that cause climate change despite an independent report that says the regulations would be weaker than Ottawa's.
Some environmental groups fear the same could happen in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which they say would make it harder for Canada to meet its greenhouse gas commitments.
"It's a weak first step," said Jan Gorski of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think-tank. "If they're willing to approve regulations that are subpar in B.C., then it really puts the opportunity to meet the climate goals at risk."
Methane is a greenhouse gas between 30 and 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Almost half of Canada's methane emissions leak from oil and gas facilities and the governing Liberals have announced targets to reduce them by 45 per cent.
On the weekend, the federal government announced the start of a consultation period for accepting B.C.'s proposed regulations instead of those developed in Ottawa.
"(The B.C. proposal) will result in methane emission reductions that meet the expected impact," says a government document.
But in February, an independent scientific review of fracking commissioned by the B.C. government concluded the province's proposed rules weren't as stringent as the federal ones.
Under B.C.'s proposals, a leaking well could emit more than twice the amount of methane than Ottawa will allow when its rules come into effect next year.
"Potentially, a leaking well can exceed the federal limit," the review says.
The review also points out that the province would reduce the amount of inspection and leak detection that federal rules require.
Federal rules will require inspections at least three times a year. British Columbia would require them once yearly.
The energy industry supports methane reduction goals. But it has said the best way to achieve them is to let producers focus on an overall target instead of requiring standard testing for all facilities.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers argues that focusing on the largest emitters instead of imposing across-the-board inspections would give the biggest bang for the buck.
"The incremental volume of leaks detected and repaired with a survey frequency of three times per year ... has not been high and,
consequently, may result in much higher abatement costs," the association said in a letter to B.C.'s regulator.
The problem, said Gorksi, is that it's tough to measure how much methane escapes from large emitters.
"What they're proposing is an outcome-based regulation. For that kind of regulation to work, you need really good data."
Alberta and Saskatchewan have proposed similar outcome-based approaches for methane reduction. Gorski said rules drafted by both provinces would fall short of Ottawa's reduction costs.
Previous studies using aerial measurement suggest industry estimates of methane emissions from oil and gas fields — especially heavy oil fields — are far low of the mark. The B.C.-commissioned review quotes similar evidence.
"Leakage incident rates are strongly influenced by reporting standards rather than actual well failure rate," it says.
An Environment Canada spokeswoman said the government has published an analysis of why it thinks the B.C. proposal would reduce methane by the same amount as the federal rules.
"We think B.C.'s regulations could deliver equivalent reductions," Sabrina Kim said in an email.
The federal analysis relies on the same estimates that aerial measurements have questioned.
Gorski said requiring producers to use best practices everywhere is the surest way to meet the reduction targets.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press