Methane emissions: IEA says they’re “stubbornly high”
There is “no excuse” why the oil and gas industry is not taking action on methane emissions, IEA research found. Regulators are beginning to propose more stringent rules.
Global carbon dioxide emissions from the energy industry rose by less than 1 percent in 2022, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). That increase was less than had been anticipated and a slower pace than the 6 percent increase the year before following a rebound from the pandemic, but it was a different picture for methane emissions, IEA researchers warned.
Even with the energy crisis stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sparked a scramble for oil and gas supplies, the massive addition of solar, wind, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and energy efficiency limited the growth of fossil fuel use in 2022.
“Without clean energy, the growth in [carbon] emissions would have been nearly three times as high,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said.
A separate report in February from Oslo-based research firm Rystad Energy predicts that emissions from the electric power sector will peak this year, and more broadly, fossil fuel emissions will peak by 2025.
“Peak fossil fuel CO2 emissions within the next two years is an outstanding global achievement, exceptional when considering the current supply chain roadblocks and the high focus on energy security,” Artem Abramov, head of clean tech research at Rystad Energy, said in a statement.
However, despite that seemingly good news, emissions still increased in 2022, rising to a new all-time high. The world remains far off track from its climate targets. Deep cuts are required each year in order to keep the 1.5-degrees-Celsius warming target alive.
“Stubbornly high” methane emissions: IEA
Last year also saw more alarming developments with another greenhouse gas: methane. Methane emissions “remained stubbornly high in 2022,” according to the IEA. The energy industry emitted an estimated 135 million tonnes of methane, only slightly below record highs set in 2019.
Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, more than 80 times more powerful than CO2 over a 20-year period. And methane is responsible for an estimated 30 percent increase in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution.
But because methane dissipates in the atmosphere much more quickly than CO2, it is widely seen as the lowest-hanging fruit for climate action. Quick and deep cuts to methane emissions would slow the pace of global warming in short order.
Many governments have signed up to the Global Methane Pledge, a voluntary commitment with the goal of slashing methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
While there has been progress on that front, the glaring problem is that the oil and gas industry is not cutting methane pollution fast enough. In fact, it is barely even trying.
Oil and gas firms failing to act
The IEA blasted oil and gas companies for failing to act, even as they have both the capital and the technology to fix the problem.
“Methane emissions from oil and gas alone could be reduced by 75% with existing technologies, highlighting a lack of industry action on an issue that is often very cheap to address,” the IEA said in its report. “Less than 3% of the income accrued by oil and gas companies worldwide last year would be required to make the USD 100 billion investment in technologies needed to achieve this reduction.”
Oil and gas companies are posting record profits, and are sending tens of billions of dollars to investors in the form of dividends and share buybacks.
“There’s just no excuse,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement. “The Nord Stream pipeline explosion last year released a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere. But normal oil and gas operations around the world release the same amount of methane as the Nord Stream explosion every single day.”
The agency called for an end to routine flaring and venting of methane as the most impactful measure than countries can take.
But flaring and venting remains commonplace across the supply chain. Leaks, flares, and venting occurs at drill sites. It also occurs at LNG facilities — a favorite climate “solution” put forward by the industry —as Gas Outlook has reported.
“Methane levels in the global atmosphere are now rising at the most rapid rate ever, having been level for the first decade of this 21st Century,” Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environment at Cornell University, told Gas Outlook. Howarth has conducted groundbreaking research on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, which has helped shine a spotlight on the enormity of the problem.
“Scientists remain divided as to the cause, but my research points strongly towards emissions from natural gas as the single largest driver of this increase,” Howarth said.
The IEA estimates that the oil and gas industry releases 260 billion cubic meters of methane each year from its operations, more than the volumes of gas shipped from Russia to the European Union prior to the war in Ukraine. Three-quarters of that total could be captured and sold with existing technologies.
“Industry could certainly do a lot to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, though, they have done little,” Howarth said. “Rather than tackle the actual problem, they seem to have resorted more to this as a public relations matter as the public has become more concerned about methane.”
In reports filed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the industry says that methane emissions continue to decline. “But observations by independent scientists simply do not support this,” Howarth said.
EPA data on methane relies on industry self-reporting and also includes broad assumptions — not actual inspections — about leakage rates from certain equipment, figures that tend to understate the problem. Howarth estimates that actual methane emissions from the gas sector are likely five times higher than EPA data suggests.
But he said that the IEA’s recent methane report is “interesting” because the international body also had a track record of underestimating the methane problem. However, that has changed over the past year as the IEA has begun to sound the alarm.
Warnings about methane come as governments are starting to take more stringent action. The European Union is close to voting on legislation that would require cuts to methane from oil and gas operations, although the proposal has been watered down.
Civil society monitoring
In the U.S., the EPA is considering tightening up rules on methane emissions from oil and gas wells. Notably, the proposal includes allowing third-party groups, such as citizen or environmental organizations, to monitor oil and gas operations, and alert companies and regulators when methane leaks are found. Companies would then be forced to inspect their equipment and fix leaks.
The novel provision is a recognition that the EPA lacks the resources to actually inspect oil and gas industry operations themselves, and so it needs to rely on civil society to help police the industry.
Energy lobbying representatives are vehemently opposed to the proposed third-party monitoring programme, arguing that it would lead to “industry harassment.” Instead, energy lobbyists insist that voluntary reporting from companies is sufficient.
However, a recent incident demonstrates why industry-led reporting is problematic.
In February, Bloomberg Green approached ExxonMobil with satellite imagery that showed a massive methane plume over the company’s facility in New Mexico. Producers are required to report large leaks in the state within 24 hours, but several weeks had gone by and Exxon did not report it to regulators. Bloomberg Green reporters showed the satellite images to Exxon, and then five hours later, the company decided to file a report. Until recently, this type of satellite technology did not exist, allowing huge methane plumes to go undetected.
One of the reporters, Aaron Clark, said the event is “a blow to ExxonMobil’s credibility and the wider US oil and gas industry that for decades have self-reported their emissions,” and that it “bolsters a case being made by the White House pursuing new policies to empower private citizens to police oil wells and pipelines for leaks.”