For years, the Koch fertilizer plant near Brandon, Minnedosa's ethanol plant and Winnipeg's landfill were Manitoba's biggest greenhouse-gas emitters.
Now, Manitoba's booming oilpatch beats them all.
New data provided by the Manitoba government's petroleum branch suggest greenhouse gas emissions from the oilpatch increased last year to 813 kilotonnes. The emissions occur mostly when natural gas gets sucked out of the earth along with crude oil and briny water from the province's 3,000-plus wells. That gas is normally flared or vented, since Manitoba has no way of capturing it and using it as fuel.
The emissions are the equivalent of 168,000 cars on the road for a year. Unlike several other provinces, Manitoba has no cap on flared emissions, but a new pipeline in the planning stages could eventually capture some of the natural gas and sell it rather than burning it.
The 2012 emissions figure is a preliminary estimate. It must still be crunched by Environment Canada before it's included in the next official tally of each province's emissions, to be released next spring. The most recent numbers, which cover 2011, put the total at just 700 kilotonnes, meaning there was an estimated 16 per cent increase in emissions from the oilpatch in 2012.
"It's a lot of greenhouse gas. Any is a lot," said Dennis LeNeveu, an environmental consultant and former staffer at Atomic Energy of Canada, who has been researching the environmental impact of Manitoba's oilpatch.
Despite the emissions increase, LeNeveu said context matters. Manitoba's oilpatch is small, and flaring done in larger production centres such as North Dakota is exponentially larger.
In the great scheme of greenhouse gases, 813 kilotonnes is tiny. But Manitoba's emissions are also remarkably small, so the oilpatch amounts to three or four per cent of the province's total. That is significant for a province trying to bill itself as an environmental leader on climate change as the NDP government begins crafting new emissions-reduction goals following its failure to meet its Kyoto targets.
Flaring is most common in the Waskada oilfield, about 140 kilometres southwest of Brandon, because the crude there is rich in natural gas. The province has explored the option of capturing the gas and adding it to Manitoba Hydro's natural gas supply, but technical issues abound.
In 2011, Penn West Exploration's operations in the Waskada oilfield made their first appearance on Manitoba's list of top emitters, which includes 13 other point-source emitters, mostly big facilities such as the fertilizer plant near Brandon or the Gerdau Ameristeel plant in Selkirk.
Penn West transports most of the gas from its wells to a processing plant in nearby Cromer. Liquid gases, such as propane and butane, are removed and trucked to market, while the rest is flared from a single point instead of at each well site. The plant's emissions in 2011 were 55 kilotonnes and will be 82 kilotonnes in 2012 due to increased oil production, said Penn West spokesman Greg Moffatt.
Those emissions could drop substantially in the next year or two, thanks to a proposed gas pipeline to Saskatchewan that Penn West hopes to build with EOG Resources, another large player in Manitoba's oilpatch.
The pipeline would ship gas from Pierson to a gas plant in southeastern Saskatchewan and then to market. The project awaits final approvals from the province, but could be built next year and could dramatically shrink emissions from the Waskada field.
Keith Lowdon, director of the Manitoba government's petroleum branch, says flaring is an environmental problem and a waste of a resource. The province has been pushing for a pipeline to capture the natural gas for some time. "We've been pestering them," said Lowdon. "We want to see it happening."
But Manitoba, unlike other provinces, has no regulations that limit flaring or venting natural gas, nor does it mandate an exact tally of emissions. Saskatchewan is working on regulations to cap flaring at 900 cubic metres per day and British Columbia's climate-changeplan calls for the elimination of flaring by 2016.
"Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan have created regulations to severely limit flaring, and they've done it for a reason -- it's a big environmental polluter," said LeNeveu. "Manitoba just turns a blind eye to it."
The province's other big oil companies -- Tundra Oil and Gas and EOG Resources -- did not respond to calls and emails for comment on emissions.