Flaring of methane gas from a well. Photo credit: Mike Eisenfeld.

All Spark, No Flare.

How One Canadian Woman is Quietly Revolutionizing Methane Emissions Reductions

Audrey Mascarenhas, President & CEO of Questor Technologies, is also a fellow in the Alberta Energy Futures Lab, which is a multi-stakeholder engagement process working to transition the Alberta energy system to a low-carbon economy.

Thursday in Washington D.C., President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jointly announced new commitments to significantly reduce methane emissions from oil and gas development. This matters for two big reasons. One: methane is a huge driver of climate change. And two: the technology for vastly reducing these emissions already exists.

In fact, some of the world’s leading technology for addressing this challenge was developed here in Canada. By a woman. Seventeen years ago.

An engineer by training, Audrey Mascarenhas left a two-decade career in the oil and gas sector to stay home with her kids. Then she got bit by the entrepreneurial bug. Like most entrepreneurs and engineers — the opportunity to solve a problem (one that she could see so clearly) was too hard to resist. She’s part of the birth story of Questor Technology Inc. — a small Canadian firm that is quietly bringing clean methane combustion technology to North America and beyond.

Some of the world’s leading technology for addressing this challenge was developed here in Canada. By a woman. Seventeen years ago.

We called up Audrey in Calgary to understand a bit more about why conquering methane is so important and what it takes to do it. Here’s what she told us.

Why is reducing methane emissions so important to achieving North American climate goals?

So, when people think of climate change they usually think of CO2. But right now 25% of world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from methane. And methane is a way more destructive gas in terms of its global warming potential. Like 30 times worse, and that’s a conservative estimate. Clearly addressing methane emissions is critical to fighting climate change. And the opportunity for North America is huge; we have the technology to reduce these emissions and it’s cost-effective. We’re talking less than $3/tonne.

But the opportunity isn’t just to reduce emissions; it’s also to capture the energy potential for better use. Globally, right now, we flare 14 billion cubic feet of methane gas every day. That’s the energy equivalent of 4 million barrels of oil that we’re basically just wasting.

So you’re saying there’s energy potential in methane gas waste that we can use? How does that work?

Exactly. So the technology captures gas and cleanly combusts it, all within a contained system. So we’re not flaring it off into the atmosphere, we’re capturing the energy from that combustion process and using it — to generate heat, to generate power. There’s great potential there.

People must have realized that right away, right? This seems like a pretty big deal.

Keep in mind, when I first started working on this back in 1999, climate change wasn’t really on the radar. The problem was air pollution. People were inhaling the odours and the particulate from the flaring process, and that was causing a lot of concern. Communities didn’t want these facilities anywhere near them. This was a way to address that problem.

But now, understanding the role of methane in climate change, understanding the strong desire for cleaner forms of energy, understanding the problems with black carbon: this is a no brainer. This is easy stuff to do. It’s cheap to do.

When it comes to methane gas, most of us think “cow farts.” Why target emissions from oil and gas?

Yes, “cow farts” are a problem — but they are, for obvious reasons, one of the trickier challenges to solve from a combustion perspective. But oil and gas is a significant contributor of methane — the gas is trapped inside the oil and then it gets released when the product is brought to the surface. Landfills are another major global contributor to the methane problem. It’s a by-product of the decomposition process. That’s another place where this technology is really effective.

What’s it been like ramping up this technology in Canada? Were people ready for it?

To be honest, for a long time, it was hard. Some days it really felt like pushing on a rope. But we’ve grown. Today 50% of our revenue comes from Canada, 50% from the US. Last year we got some meaningful support from SDTC, and they’ve really been a champion for this technology. Before that, we bank rolled all of our growth through the profits we were bringing in.

But we’re still a great Canadian secret — even though we’re seen as a world leader, we’re not very well known in our own backyard.

What will it take to scale this up? How do we “out” your secret?

It won’t take much, really, because the technology has arrived. Getting the right policies in place will certainly make a difference — and it’s really great to see that collaboration now happening between the US and Canada. Certainly, channeling investment towards technologies like this will matter. This isn’t a sexy, back-to-the-future technology that we won’t be able to use for another 20 years. This is working now. We already have it. We just need to use it.

Smart Prosperity is a new Canadian initiative aimed to build a stronger and cleaner economy, backed by a broad group of Canadian leaders from across the economy and all parts of civil society.

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