Europe has long led the global charge against greenhouse gas pollution. But it has been chronically reluctant to address the climate impact of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, writes Poppy Kalesi.
Poppy Kalesi is the director of European oil and gas policy at the Environmental Defence Fund, a pressure group.
As European demand for imported natural gas rises, methane emissions from the industry threaten to undermine progress towards climate stabilisation.
Methane is a potent climate pollutant, more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after release. Human-made methane emissions account for about 25% of today’s warming.
A third of that comes from the oil and gas sector. To keep warming below the crucial 1.5 C threshold, we must reduce methane emissions now, along with carbon dioxide.
But to solve the oil and gas methane problem, Europe’s policymakers first have to acknowledge it.
For years, the dominant view has been that we simply don’t have an oil and gas methane issue. After all, there isn’t much production here, and what does exist is surely well regulated. If there is any concern, the conventional belief goes, it lies elsewhere. This thinking is long overdue for a change.
For starters, there is ample reason to believe the industry’s actual emissions are higher than official estimates. For example, an EDF-led collaborative study published in the journal Science last June found oil and gas companies alone emit 13 million metric tons of methane a year in the US alone, nearly 60% more than government estimates.
European data is more limited, but still gives cause for concern. While a recent study of the sprawling Groningen gas fields led by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research found lower emissions than in North America, they were still much higher than Dutch government estimates.
Nor does responsibility for oil and gas methane emissions stop at our borders. The EU consumes about 47% of internationally traded gas, according to the BP Energy Outlook 2017. That means we are leaving a very big methane footprint in our supplier countries (Russia, Norway, Algeria and Qatar).
Fortunately, solutions are straightforward and relatively simple – more plumbing than rocket science. According to the International Energy Agency, the oil and gas industry could reduce its worldwide methane emissions by 75% using existing technologies – with up to two-thirds of these reductions at zero net cost.
Officials in many parts of the world are starting to take action. The US and several individual states have adopted robust oil and gas methane policies, as have Canada and Mexico. Indeed, federal methane rules are one area where President Trump’s efforts to slash environmental safeguards have repeatedly failed. In Colorado, where rules have been in place longest, they have proven both effective and affordable.
Europe’s global energy companies are beginning to engage on methane. BP, ENI, Equinor, Repsol, Shell and Total have acknowledged the problem. They are making reduction commitments and starting to disclose some emissions data. BP and Equinor have expressed support for the US regulations, while Shell went even further, urging the administration to tighten the standards.
Now it is time for Europe to step up. Norway has recommendations and guidelines, but we need much more. Today, the EU has policies to ensure security of fossil gas supplies, competition in the internal gas market, and lower gas prices for consumers, but there are no sustainability requirements to reduce oil and gas methane emissions (or CO2 for that matter).
Fortunately, this is starting to change. In its 14 March resolution on the EU’s net-zero strategy, the European Parliament reiterated in recital 33 the political urgency of a Commission proposal for a Union methane strategy, repeating direction in Article 16 of the Energy Union Governance Regulation.
Legislation to reduce Europe’s international methane footprint should follow as soon as possible, with the aim of reducing global oil and gas methane emissions at least 45% by 2025.
Some say fixing the methane problem only extends reliance on fossil fuels. This misses a bigger, more urgent point. Ending dependence on oil and gas is critical. But whether the transition happens in 20 years or 50 years, methane has such a profound impact on the rate of warming that failure to cut methane emissions now will only push the climate faster toward dangerous tipping points.
Europeans should join forces to elevate the problem. The sooner the EU addresses oil and gas methane, the quicker the world can deliver on the Paris Agreement commitments and UN Sustainable Development Goals. Otherwise, natural gas methane emissions have the potency to drive global warming to dangerous levels in our lifetime.