The head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) says there’s “no excuse” for near-record global emissions of methane from fossil fuels, even as new research suggests heavy oil facilities in Saskatchewan are releasing almost four times as much of the climate super-pollutant as they report to government.
The 135 million tonnes of methane the industry released last year fell just shy of the all-time record set in 2019 and accounted for 40% of global methane emissions due to human activity, the Paris-based IEA reported yesterday, in the latest edition of its annual Global Methane Tracker. Those numbers show fossil companies failing to step up to control the methane they release into the atmosphere, despite a frenzied year of high energy prices and record profits.
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Methane is a byproduct of oil, gas, and coal production that is 80 to 85 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. At the COP 26 climate summit in 2021, world leaders adopted a Global Methane Pledge that called for a 30% reduction by the end of the decade, a target that experts said was insufficient.
An Unambitious Target
It’s also not terribly ambitious, according to the IEA’s analysis.
“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 agency said in a release. “Less than 3% of the income accrued by oil and gas companies worldwide last year would be required to make the US$100 billion investment in technologies needed to achieve this reduction.”
That puts methane cuts “among the cheapest options to limit near-term global warming,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol declared. “There is just no excuse.”
The Global Methane Tracker says the “most impactful measure” to reduce methane emissions would be to end all non-emergency flaring and venting of methane from oil and gas sites. Of the estimated 260 billion cubic metres of the climate super-pollutant that enter the atmosphere each year from oil and gas, three-quarters “could be retained and brought to market using tried and tested policies and technologies,” the IEA writes. “The captured methane would amount to more than the European Union’s total annual gas imports from Russia prior to the invasion of Ukraine.”
Colossal fossils like Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, and others reported record profits last year as Russia’s war in Ukraine drove up oil and fossil gas prices, spurring calls for the companies to do more to contain climate-changing emissions and help households and businesses that saw their utility bills explode, The Associated Press reports.
The war exacerbated a global energy crunch that started as demand rebounded from pandemic lows, especially in Europe, which relied on Russian supplies before the invasion nearly a year ago. Fears about gas shortages drove up prices, sending parts of Europe back to coal and seeking suppliers outside Russia. Prices have steadily dropped as the continent made it through the winter heating season with enough supply and the global economy slowed, meaning less demand for energy.
“The untamed release of methane in fossil fuel production is a problem that sometimes goes under the radar in public debate,” Birol said. “Fossil fuel producers need to step up and policy-makers need to step in—and both must do so quickly.”
The IEA also shows how methane emissions from coal production could easily be cut by half. “Coal is still one of the biggest culprits when it comes to methane,” said Anatoli Smirnov of the Ember think tank. “More than a year on from the Global Methane Pledge we’ve yet to see improvements. The IEA’s report shows that it is possible to mitigate most of the world’s coal mine methane emissions at low cost.”
The Saskatchewan research, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, pioneers new methods of measuring methane emissions that question current industry practice, author Matthew Johnson told The Canadian Press.
“A lot of these (reports) are done on… estimates,” said Johnson, an engineering professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “Clearly, they’re not very accurate.”
It’s a longstanding problem that applies to natural gas (aka fossil gas) production, as well, and could undercut continuing efforts to promote “blue” hydrogen. Canadian industry and government say they’re trying to cut those emissions by three-quarters, but measuring the scale of the problem has been difficult.
“These are hard measurements,” said Johnson.
Industry generally relies on an estimate of how much methane comes to the surface for each barrel of oil, then multiplies that measurement by how much oil is produced, CP explains. In recent years, several studies using direct measurement from overflying aircraft have thrown doubt on that method.
Johnson said the amount of methane associated with oil is highly variable, which makes calculations based on that ratio unreliable.
Better Measurement Shows Higher Emissions
Johnson and his colleagues used the latest airborne technology as well as ground-based sensors to measure methane emissions from 962 heavy oil facilities in Saskatchewan that use the so-called CHOPS technology, which uses sand to help force oil to the surface.
They found those sites released 3.9 times more methane than was reported to government inventories. That’s more than 10,000 kilograms per hour, compared to the nearly 2,700 kilograms per hour industry reports.
“That methane, on its own, would be a significant contribution to the entire inventory of Saskatchewan,” said Johnson.
Getting an accurate handle on how much methane industry releases to the atmosphere is important for a couple reasons, he added.
First, industry and the federal government have agreed to cut those emissions by 75% by 2030. Regulations to achieve that goal are expected this year and measuring an accurate starting point will be crucial.
Second, Johnson said getting a reliable, well-by-well analysis of emissions will be important for industry in the future.
Methane emissions do not face the same taxes as carbon dioxide releases, but that’s changing. The United States is discussing putting a price on released methane under its Inflation Reduction Act.
Good information will be key to knowing which wells will remain profitable as such price regimes spread, said Johnson.
“If you imagine a price on methane,” he told CP’s Bob Weber, “a lot of these wells would be uneconomic.”
However, Johnson’s calculations suggest the cost of reducing that methane is low enough that the payback period for not having to pay a methane price could be just two years. And if the value of the oil produced is included, the payback period drops to nine months for many wells.
Even burning the methane off would help, Johnson said.
“Just installing basic combustion mitigation technology is not going to be a deal-breaker for the well, and you can get quite significant methane reductions.”
Segments of this report were first published by The Associated Press and The Canadian Press on February 21, 2023.
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