‘The technologies are there’: How oil and gas companies must go beyond pledges to abate methane and cut emissions

Tools already exist for the oil and gas industry to reduce methane and massively decrease global emissions. Firmer regulations, however, may be the only way to stop polluters.

Methane flaring with black smoke
Oil and gas companies are responsible for around 60 per cent of human-induced methane emissions. Image: Flickr / Beyond Coal & Gas Image Library

Solutions already exist to drive down global methane emissions – they just have to be properly utilised by oil and gas companies for the industry to keep to their pledges, says Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy transition at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a global non-profit organisation focused on tackling climate change and environmental issues.

This, he noted, will be key to the oil and gas industry proving that they are a constructive partner in the energy transition.

“While it sounds like it’s an impossible task, the fact is that the technologies are there. It is just about applying them now,” Brownstein stressed.

Methane is indeed the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide and is responsible for almost a third of the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution.

The oil and gas industry is responsible for approximately 60 per cent of human-induced methane emissions, with about half of these emissions coming from flaring and methane released during operations, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). 

More than 10 per cent of methane leaks and emissions in Southeast Asia stems from the oil and gas industry. 

Targeting this potent greenhouse gas, which has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere, presents a “quick yet ample” opportunity to rapidly drive down carbon emissions – a challenge more pressing than ever in the wake of 2023 being the hottest year recorded so far.

“When you think about it, addressing methane emissions could reduce the temperature increase by a tenth to two-tenths of a degree. That’s a big deal when you consider how warming is already dangerously close to the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold referenced in the Paris Agreement,” Brownstein added.

Tackling the unseen

Methane emissions, however, have gone undetected by oil and gas players for many years due to the lack of measured data to quantify methane leaks from their operations.

Companies have instead relied on inaccurate engineering estimates and only later discovered the actual extent of the problem using measurement technologies.

According to Brownstein, methane emissions in the United States alone were 60 per cent higher than reported. “When people think of oil and gas [companies], they usually think about carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere for centuries and how this drives warming over time. Many don’t realise that these companies are also a source of methane pollution,” Brownstein said. 

While methane is sometimes released intentionally for safety reasons from oil and gas facilities, or to maintain pressure in pipelines, most methane leaks result from equipment failures, intentional releases, and the underreporting of emissions.

Methane leaks are often large enough to be defined as “super-emitter events” releasing massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere over a period of several weeks. One gas storage facility in Los Angeles, California, leaked almost 100,000 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere over four months in 2015. 

While the world has seen some progress as of late, it is far from enough, according to environmental groups.

Some 50 oil and gas companies responsible for half of global oil production pledged to reach near zero methane emissions and to end routine flaring in their operations by 2030 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai (COP28) on 2 December 2023.

The pledge, which includes oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Shell, TotalEnergies, and BP, was quickly criticised by green groups, who called it a “smokescreen to hide the reality that we need to phase out oil, gas and coal” in a letter.

While there was a more striking climate deal – which saw over 200 countries agree on the need to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems” on the final day of COP28 negotiations – no timescale was specified. The deal also lacks the additional financing developing nations require to transition away from fossil fuels.

“The challenge now is to take the commitments that a few companies have made and make that the standard practice across the industry – not just the global household names like Shell, TotalEnergies, and Exxon, but also regional companies like Pertamina,” said Brownstein.

Pertamina is the largest oil and gas company in Indonesia and is responsible for roughly 60 per cent of the nation’s oil production and 80 per cent of the country’s natural gas production.

Let’s not forget that over half of the world’s oil and gas production is in the hands of state-owned and national oil companies – most of them from the Global South. Unless we have these national oil companies fully engaged in this issue, we won’t be successful in achieving the kind of reductions that can be achieved.

Mark Brownstein

Holding companies accountable

Another mechanism that oil and gas companies can adhere to in demonstrating their commitment to abating methane is the United Nations’ Oil & Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 (OGMP 2.0).

The OGMP 2.0 provides companies with a standard framework to report their emissions using actual measured data to improve the accuracy of methane emissions reporting and directly connect it to strategic mitigation. Key founding partners of the OGMP 2.0 include EDF, Climate And Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), and the European Commission.

While 80 oil and gas companies have committed to measuring and reducing their methane emissions through the OGMP 2.0, it is still a voluntary initiative and relies on self-reported data from participating companies, which are still subject to inaccuracies or manipulation. The OGMP 2.0 also focuses primarily on methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations, which may not capture the full scope of emissions across the entire value chain.

There is a need to verify these companies independently, Brownstein emphasised, such as through the International Methane Emissions Observatory, which uses satellites to gather data to publish an annual report on the industry’s emissions. 

EDF also hopes that its methane-tracking satellite, called MethaneSAT, which launches in March this year, will provide detailed information on more than 80 per cent of oil and gas operations worldwide, ranging from the source of methane emissions to the rate at which the gas is emitted.

How regulators can enforce methane abatement

International regulators are equally responsible for enforcing the mandatory measuring, reporting and abatement of methane emissions. “Regulators are key to enabling transparent measurement, reporting, and verification processes for methane emissions, either through themselves or third-party verification bodies,” said Dr Victor Nian, co-founder and CEO of the Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources (CSER).

The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency issued a “final rule” also on 2 December 2023 that aims to reduce methane nearly 80 per cent below initial projections and prevent “an estimated 58 million tons of methane emissions from 2024 to 2038.”

Included in the new rule is a “Super Emitter Programme” that allows third parties, including environmental groups, to detect and report large methane releases from oil and gas sites, and requires the oil and gas industry to phase out routine natural gas flaring at new oil wells, among other requirements.

Future policies, Nian added, could mandate methane emission reductions in selected sectors by including national greenhouse gas inventory accounting, which is the process of measuring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions at the national level. Better policies should also mandate corporate carbon emission accounting standards, which refer to measuring and reporting a company’s carbon emissions.

Over half of the methane emissions from the oil and gas industry stem from operation and maintenance-related deficiencies, which then lead to methane leaks, Brownstein said.

The EPA’s regulations also require “comprehensive monitoring” for methane leaks from well sites – where drilling takes place to access subsurface reservoirs containing petroleum or natural gas – and compressor stations, which are facilities that maintain the pressure and flow rate of natural gas moving through pipelines. 

The rule also creates standards for reducing emissions from equipment such as controllers, pumps, and storage tanks, with the EPA noting that oil and gas companies must choose “low-cost and innovative methane monitoring technologies” to detect leaks.

The regulations require companies to conduct regular inspections to find and fix leaks, replace older equipment involved in releasing methane, and install vapour recovery tanks on pressure relief valves to collect gas in a tank instead of being released into the atmosphere.

“Even though we use satellites to identify the problems, fixing the methane problem in the oil and gas industry is not rocket science – it’s more of an auto mechanics or plumbing issue,” added Brownstein.

One size does not fit all

Beyond regulation, economic incentives should be allocated for oil and gas companies – particularly those in developing countries – to address methane leaks, said Brownstein.

“We often argue that every molecule of methane that goes into the atmosphere is one less molecule of natural gas that can be used to meet energy needs,” he explained. “When methane goes to waste, it’s a waste of a valuable energy resource.”

Despite the pledges at COP28, little will be achieved unless oil and gas companies put in place a proper framework to demonstrate their efforts in addressing the issue.

“[Oil and gas] companies need to establish a proper ESG framework, with a focus on governance, to show how they carry out the proper monitoring, accounting, reporting and verification of methane leakage, along with a transparent plan of action on mitigation and prevention measures,” Nian noted. 

This includes plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions on or before 2050, noted Brownstein.  

“Let’s not forget that over half of the world’s oil and gas production is in the hands of state-owned and national oil companies – most of them from the Global South,” he said. “Unless we have these national oil companies fully engaged in this issue, we won’t be successful in achieving the kind of reductions that can be achieved.”

Nian noted that substantial methane emissions reduction is achievable, provided the various stakeholders are committed to addressing the issue.

“Carbon capture, utilisation and storage, alternative fuels, and a change in consumption habits all play a role in enabling deep decarbonisation pathways. Each country, however, needs to ensure they are doing so on a sustainable pathway through implementing nationally appropriate mitigation actions, all while keeping their net zero goal in mind,” Nian said, adding that while developed economies are calling for net zero targets, emerging economies may have to continue relying on fossil fuels in their energy transition journey for the time being.

“Unless the world changes its thinking and technological processes in manufacturing, the oil and gas industry will always have a role in supporting the proper functioning of the economy.”

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