IEA raps oil and gas sector for failing to cut methane emissions

Global methane emissions from energy were only slightly below record high levels in 2022, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has confirmed, arguing that there is “just no excuse” for oil and gas firms not to intervene.

IEA raps oil and gas sector for failing to cut methane emissions

The Agency has today (21 February) published its latest global annual methane tracker, confirming that agriculture was the largest source of methane emissions in 2022, followed by the energy sector. Energy accounted for some 40% of total methane emissions attributable to human activity.

Action on methane is increasingly being recognised as crucial to limiting the global temperature increase. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas in terms of its global warming potential, with the IEA attributing almost one-third of the increase in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution to the gas.

The good news is that methane has a short lifespan – its atmospheric life is only around 12 years, compared with decades or even centuries for many other greenhouse gases. As such, reducing methane emissions could bring about climate mitigation results fairly swiftly; this is the premise of the Global Methane Pledge signed by more than 150 nations. The Pledge commits nations to a 30% reduction in methane emissions between 2020 and 2030. 

The IEA’s new tracker confirms a slight increase in methane emissions from energy year-on-year, with the total in 2022 standing at 135 million tonnes. Coal, oil and natural gas operations are each responsible for around 40 million tonnes of these emissions, with the remainder accounted for by incomplete combustion of biomass and from leaks from end-use oil and gas equipment.

Record high methane emissions from the energy sector were tracked by the IEA in 2019, when the total stood at just over 135 million tonnes.

The Agency has chided the sector for not cutting methane emissions more steeply in recent years, given that the technologies needed to take action are available and are cheaper than ever to implement. It questions why energy majors are not setting aside “only a fraction of their bumper income from the energy crisis” to tackle methane emissions, estimating that 3% of the income generated by oil and gas companies worldwide during 2022 would be needed to deliver a 75% reduction in methane emissions from oil and gas.

According to the IEA, around 70% of methane emissions from fossil fuel operations could be reduced with existing technologies. Its tracker report sets out interventions such as leak detection and repair programmes, equipment upgrade and methane utilisation at coal mines. The most impactful intervention, the tracker states, would be halting all non-emergency flaring and venting of methane. It states that three-quarters of the methane that was not emitting due to lower venting and flaring levels could be retained.

The interventions suggested would cost $100bn to implement.

“Based on average natural gas prices from 2017 to 2021, we estimate that around 40% of methane emissions from oil and gas operations could be avoided at no net cost because the outlays for the abatement measures are less than the market value of the additional gas that is captured,” the tracker emphasises.

Commenting on the tracker’s findings, IEA executive director Fatih Birol said: “Our new Global Methane Tracker shows that some progress is being made but that emissions are still far too high and not falling fast enough – especially as methane cuts are among the cheapest options to limit near-term global warming. There is just no excuse… normal oil and gas operations around the world release the same amount of methane as the Nord Stream explosion every single day.”

The report also emphasises that, ultimately, fossil fuel extraction and use will need to decrease in the coming decades to reach global climate goals. It highlights the importance of rolling out clean cooking and modern heating in developing and emerging economies, and of electrifying cooking at heating in wealthy economies, as a priority action.

Industry response

Responding to the tracker is the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), comprising 12 of the worl’s largest oil and gas firms, collectively representing 30% of global production.

OGCI executive committee chair Bjorn Otto Sverdrup, formerly of Equinor, said: “The IEA is right to point out that there’s a huge opportunity to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and much of the technology to do that already exists.”

He added that the Initiative’s members “have already collectively reduced upstream methane emissions by 40% since 2017” and are urging peers to follow suit. The Initiative, he said, wants to “shift the industry’s mindset to treat emissions of the gas as seriously as the industry treats safety.”

The tracker revealed that, far from cutting methane emissions on an absolute basis, most oil and gas organisations are not even cutting methane intensity significantly. It confirms a 5% fall in the global average methane intensity of oil and gas production.

Stop Rosebank campaign 

The publication of the report comes as we await the UK Government’s final decision on the Rosebank oil field off the coast of Shetland.

Equinor acquired ownership of Rosebank, considered to be the largest undeveloped field in the North Sea, in 2019. It holds a majority stake in the project and the other stakeholders are Suncor Energy and Ithica Energy. Equinor has touted the job development potential of the field and stated that the project could be delivered in line with the UK Government’s 2050 net-zero target.

This is despite the fact that the IEA’s global 2050 net-zero scenario entails the development of no new oil and gas extraction capacity, beyond what was agreed pre-2021. Moreover, the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recommended a “presumption against exploration” for new oil and gas extraction capacity.

With this in mind, the project has faced fierce opposition from climate campaigners and public figures. The Stop Rosebank campaign is this week sending an open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by 200 organisations including charities such as RSPB, WWF Norway and Oxfam. Also signing the letter are comedians Frankie Boyle and Aisling Bea.

The letter highlights the climate impact of fields like Rosebank, but also calls into question the touted socio-economic benefits. It emphasises that the project is being overseen by Norwegian, Canadian and Israeli firms, with 80-90% of oil likely to be exported. It highlights how the developers will benefit from taxpayer subsidies, despite recording bumper pre-tax profits due to high wholesale energy prices.

“Why we’re subsidising Rosebank’s development to the tune of half a billion pounds, when [its developers] clearly don’t need the cash and there are plenty more worthy causes, is a mystery,” said Frankie Boyle.

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