Opinion - 22/July/2019

Oil and gas methane emissions off track

As the International Energy Agency launches its Methane Portal, Poppy Kalesi, Director of Global Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, calls on EU decision makers to make the most of all regulatory opportunities to force reductions in methane emissions

MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund, is developing a satellite to locate and measure methane from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on Earth


With EU decision makers waking up to the risks to our climate posed by methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, the question now is what to do about them. Fortunately, there is a wide assortment of tools and technologies that can help and they are now available in the Methane Portal, launched by the International Energy Agency (IEA) on 16 July 2019. The bad news is, like the oil and gas methane problem in general, a new report by the IEA shows the energy industry is lagging way behind the curve, failing to pick up available technologies at the pace needed to deliver on the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario, which would limit global warming in line with the Paris climate agreement.

As the European Commission prepares a major package of gas market reforms with an eye towards addressing the sustainability problems of gas, namely carbon dioxide and methane emissions, it is crucial that EU and national policy makers use the IEA Methane Portal to raise clear expectations on industry to address its methane challenge as quickly as possible.

The portal offers an overview of global methane emissions across sectors and a deep dive on the difference to emissions made by the abatement of methane leakage in the oil and gas industry. It also includes a section about available technologies and practices to tackle emissions and, importantly, country specific data based on best available estimates. Crucially, for policy makers, the portal includes a section on regulation, which later in the project will help create a network for the exchange of best practice among regulators.

The legislative opportunities to address methane do not stop with the gas package. There are other policy opportunities, such as the EU’s musings about net-zero legislation, the planning of the first EU space mission to monitor carbon dioxide and methane, and the EU sustainable finance legislation, which will offer direction to investors over which activities meet this criteria.

This is not just a good idea, it also happens to be a legal requirement. Under Article 16 of the Energy Union Governance Regulation, the EU requires a Union Methane Strategy by the end of 2019, a requirement reinstated in the European Parliament’s 14 March 2019 resolution on an EU net-zero strategy, making the report especially timely to help policy makers create effective methane policy in the near term.



Disappointing progress

Each year the IEA releases an in-depth status assessment on the clean energy technologies needed to meet the 2°C Paris climate agreement goal. This year, for the first time, the IEA looked at progress on tools for mitigating oil and gas methane emissions. The agency confirmed the global energy sector was “not on track” to meet current climate goals.

“Emissions remain high despite initial industry-led initiatives and government policies announced recently. Implementing abatement options quickly and at scale remains a real challenge,” the report says. Methane is over 80 times more potent than carbon during its first 20 years in the atmosphere. In fact, human-made methane emissions are responsible for roughly 25% of the atmospheric warming we are experiencing today. It is, of course, also the main ingredient in natural gas, which means the pollution is also a useful product if kept in the pipes.


Industry must step up

Reducing emissions also has the added benefit of improving the operational efficiency of producers and suppliers using emission control technologies. In a recent report produced in response to an invitation by the European Commission’s DG Energy to the European gas industry about methane emissions, two prominent trade groups, Gas Infrastructure Europe (GIE) and Marcogaz, offered a substantial review of best practices for reducing them.

But, for all of its heft, the report does little to spell out any relevant policy recommendations to improve the industry’s overall efficiency, skirting its responsibility to advise the Commission on methane policy when it is such a pressing sustainability question to answer in the Union Methane Strategy before the end of 2019. This raises serious concerns about whether the industry alone can rise up to the task of addressing sustainability.


Methane technologies: space coming soon

The oil and gas industry has been slow at picking up on digital ways of working. This is a shame as digitisation has the potential to make many methane technologies readily accessible and cost-effective, such as automated asset management, predictive maintenance, and continuous and remote monitoring. Methane mitigation technologies have already been tested by numerous global operators, yielding impressive results and are now commercially available.

MethaneSAT (a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund) is developing a new satellite that will locate and measure methane coming from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on Earth with precision and at a scale never before achieved. It will be specifically designed to generate data that will enable both companies and countries to identify, manage and reduce their emissions.

In anticipation of full transparency of emissions data from the satellite, the EU must adopt methane policies that leverage proven science-based research and high performing methane mitigation technologies. If the EU is committed to meeting its climate goals, we must reduce both carbon and methane emissions, and time is of the essence.

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