EU working on plans to expose climate impact of natural gas

European satellites can now easily detect and measure methane emissions from oil and gas operations. [ESA/ATG medialab]

The European Commission is preparing a strategy to curb methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, including fracked LNG imported from the US. But the timing is uncertain because officials are still busy collecting data on which to base a credible policy.

The announcement came in an email sent to Brussels-based EU reporters in late January. In there, Kadri Simson, the EU’s energy Commissioner, announced “a strategy to curb methane emissions” as part of policy priorities for next year, without giving further details on timing.

“Work has started on the methane emissions linked to the energy sector, including oil and gas production and transport, but also coal mines and we are planning on presenting the strategic plan still this year,” said an EU official working closely with Simson.

But “the exact timing has not yet been confirmed,” the official admitted when asked by EURACTIV.

Environmental activists have raised the pressure on policymakers to tackle methane as part of Europe’s pledge to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050.

Methane has a global warming potential that is over 80 times more powerful than CO2 during the first 20 years after release, according to the Environmental Defence Fund, a green pressure group. And human-made methane emissions account for about 25% of today’s warming, a third of which comes from the oil and gas sector, according to the EDF’s estimates.

At the same time, activists also admit that methane is a “chronic blind spot” in climate policy. And the reason is simple – there is currently no standardised way of measuring or reporting methane emissions.

Methane: Europe’s chronic climate blind spot

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.

Gas industry admits “need for better measurements”

The Commission is well aware of this: without reliable figures, there can be no sound policy on methane reduction. As it stands, officials cannot tell accurately how much methane is accidentally vented or flared by the oil and gas industry – whether at the point of extraction, or further downstream during processing, or transport, when the gas can leak out of pipelines and storage facilities.

“There are fairly significant gaps there that need to be filled,” said Peter Fraser, of the International Energy Agency (IEA). “It will cost money to get good emission slippage numbers,” he told delegates at a Brussels event last month, supported by the Florence School of Regulation and GasNaturally, an industry campaign group.

The gas industry itself admits there is a knowledge gap. “We recognise indeed, there is a need for better measurements” of methane leakage across the gas supply chain, said James Watson, secretary-general of Eurogas, an industry association.

“That’s a challenge,” he admitted, saying reliable measurements are needed to cover the “two million kilometres of pipes in Europe alone” that distribute gas to consumers.

Yet, Watson expressed confidence that the issue can be addressed. “We will find a way to work together to become increasingly precise on the measurements,” he said, insisting that any data on methane needs to “look at all the different parts of the gas value chain” – both upstream and downstream.

“Now is the time to act,” Watson told delegates at the event, saying he hoped a “baseline measurement” could be adopted soon to estimate methane leakage along the various supply chains of the gas industry.

However, the industry itself doesn’t have a full picture yet of where the emissions take place. Gas exporting countries don’t systematically report on methane emissions, and when they do, they tend to minimise methane leakage.

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To understand its full methane emission footprint and its impact on the climate, Europe needs to assess oil and gas imports from countries such as Algeria, Russia and Qatar, for which no data is available yet, says Stefan Schwietzke.

Fracked US gas under scrutiny

One of Europe’s biggest blind spot is liquefied natural gas (LNG) imported from the United States.

A recent investigation by Bloomberg, the financial news agency, found new LNG projects approved by the Trump administration could spew the equivalent of 78 million tons of CO2 into the air every year – a level of emissions that “rival those of coal”. And those numbers don’t account for the emissions caused by transporting the gas from wellheads to processing facilities and then overseas, which can be significant, Bloomberg said.

As Europe imports increasing amounts of American LNG, it will have to take account of the climate impact of imported US gas, most of which is obtained via a controversial drilling process called fracking.

For the time being, the European Commission is not taking a position publicly about which sources of gas are the most polluting. But in private, EU officials reckon that the climate impact of piped gas from Norway or Russia is markedly lower than that of fracked US gas, which is shipped to Europe over longer distances using big LNG tankers.

EU regulators will eventually go public once they have more clarity on the data. And that could come sooner than we think. In January 2019, the EU executive launched a public tender with the aim of developing “a robust methodology to measure methane emissions in the energy sector”.

The Commission’s intentions are clearly stated in an explanatory note accompanying the tender: “As a matter of urgency, the issue of vented and fugitive methane emissions in the energy sector needs to be addressed,” the document says. “Natural gas can realistically remain part of the energy mix during the transition to a carbon-neutral future if it can continue to show its environmental benefits,” it states.

“As little as a 3% leakage of methane along the natural gas supply chain can put into question the lower emissions of gas vs coal in power generation,” the Commission says in the note.

Towards an EU certification scheme?

Gas industry experts agree clearer data is badly needed to set the record straight. “We need much more transparency. And we also need an agreed methodology,” said Johnathan Stern from the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, who moderated the Brussels event.

“My own feeling about this is that there will have to be certification for emissions. And it’s going to have to be certification by value chain in relation to LNG,” Stern added, explaining that “LNG comes from a lot of different places and through fairly long value chains”.

According to Thierry Bros, an energy associate at Harvard University who has advised the European Commission on gas regulations, satellites can easily detect and measure methane emissions from oil and gas operations, a potential that was recently evaluated by scientists.

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Bros was confident that new EU figures will soon bring the necessary transparency for policymakers to act, and allow them to discriminate between various sources of gas imports.

What he suggests is for the Commission to set an emissions performance standard in Europe that will “set the bar for environmentally responsible practices” in the energy sector worldwide.

“Gas companies that wish to sell gas to Europe will be required to certify their methane emissions. The EU, having a home standard, would then be in a position to accept non-EU gas only if it meets the set criteria,” he said in a recent paper.

“In the coming months, we will get data and a standard EU methodology and no-one will be able to hide any longer,” Bros told EURACTIV.

Calls grow for EU-wide certificates to boost market for ‘green gas’

The market for Guarantees of Origin (GOs) linked to renewable gas is currently in its infancy. But with demand building up, industry figures – and environmentalists – are now calling for existing certification schemes to be harmonised and made mandatory across the European Union.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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