With global methane emissions rising sharply, by 32% so far this year despite the pandemic-driven recession, the European Union may consider mandatory emission standards for oil and gas imports that would push fossils to report and repair leaks of the climate-busting greenhouse gas.
“Comparing the first eight months of 2019 to the same period in 2020, the Paris-based firm Kayrros said methane leaks from oil and gas industry hot spots climbed even higher in Algeria, Russia, and Turkmenistan, growing by more than 40%,” the Washington Post reports, with the United States, Iran, and Iraq also showing up among the biggest contributors by volume. That’s a problem because methane is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the 20-year span when humanity will be scrambling to get the climate crisis under control.
“Such increases in methane emissions are concerning and in stark contradiction to the direction set in the Paris Agreement,” Kayrros President Antoine Rostand told the Post. “Despite much talk of climate action by energy industry stakeholders, global methane emissions continue to increase steeply.”
During the pandemic, he added, natural gas demand and production fell off, but some fossils took the opportunity to cut costs by loosening their operating standards.
The biggest single leak the researchers detected, he added, was at a site in northern Iraq that released 400 tons of methane per hour, creating a plume that stretched 200 miles into Saudi Arabia. In the U.S., the single biggest offender was a pipeline emitting 150 tons per hour, the greenhouse gas equivalent of 10 coal plants operating at full capacity.
The Kayrros study landed just as a new EU strategy said the continent might do its part to control methane emissions if fossils won’t. “The [European] Commission will examine options as regards possible methane emission reduction targets or standards or other incentives on fossil energy consumed and imported in the EU in the absence of significant commitments from international partners,” it stated.
That statement of intent may be backed by legislation next year, “requiring oil and gas companies to report methane emissions and repair leaks,” Climate Home News reports. “It will consider banning flaring and venting, which involve burning methane or directly releasing the potent gas into the atmosphere.”
New standards along those lines “would put pressure on suppliers like Russia, Algeria, and the Gulf states to take methane emissions seriously,” Climate Home adds. “That could significantly impact global methane emissions, as the EU is the world’s largest importer of fossil gas,” while only producing 5% of the total internally.
Poppy Kalesi, director of global energy at the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), told Climate Home it will take legislative action—beyond voluntary measures put in place by colossal fossils like Shell and BP—to drive down global methane emissions. “Setting a mandatory methane performance standard can catalyse constructive collaboration between the EU and supplier countries by making it easy on large European gas buyers to apply pressure on their suppliers to credibly engage with their methane emissions,” she said.
Katalin Cseh, a Renew Europe Member of European Parliament from Hungary, called the new strategy “a promising step in the right direction”, but told Climate Home she was disappointed that binding targets and standards are only under consideration. Jutta Paulus, a European Greens MEP from Germany, said the strategy “only scratches the surface and limits itself to minor issues like plugging methane leaks and statistics. Counting emissions does not help when the order of the day is to reduce them.”
The focus on methane shows fossil companies postponing or ignoring control measures that would make a significant contribution to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, without harming their financial bottom lines. “Methane accounts for a quarter of global warming emissions from human activities, and the oil and gas sector offers the fastest,” the Post writes, citing EDF and the International Energy Agency. “The IEA said the oil and gas industry can reduce methane emissions by 75% using technology available today,” and “more than half of this is achievable at no net cost to the industry.”