Methane emissions are underrated at one third of global warming gases, largely because fossil fuel sector methane emissions are underestimated by 70 percent. Current data indicates the energy sector accounts for 40 percent of man-made methane. Consequently, the COP26 non-binding pledges of over 100 nations for a 30 percent reduction by 2030 are not only dreadfully inadequate, but also, without standardized measuring, reporting and verification standards, oil and gas industry methane greenwashing is rampant. The draft European Union (EU) plan to reduce methane emissions up to 80 percent by 2030 zeros in on methane accountability norms and establishes transparent extraterritorial requirements to cover imports. The U.S. too, with the backing of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, now has the foundation for vigorous proposal to update its regulations and investments in methane reduction. Sadly, Canada’s methane ambitions procrastinate and are fuzzy. Lastly, stringent government actions would be less critical if the oil and gas industry applied existing technologies to capture fossil fuel methane and sell it for a net profit.
Methane, the fossil fuel global warming lapsus
According to Carbon Tracker, methane emissions account for one-third of the global warming portrait since the pre-industrial era. That makes it the second largest greenhouse gas (GHG) source. The amount of this gas in the atmosphere has been steadily rising since 2007.
Yet the full picture is much worse. An International Energy Agency (IEA) analysis made public on February 23, 2022, reveals that reports from governments underestimate global energy sector methane emissions by 70 percent.
Methane emanating from the fossil fuel sector is largely attributable to leaks from oil and gas pipelines and wells, in addition to fracking, venting and flaring. These releases are readily avoidable at no net cost by applying a large array of existing technologies to capture methane. There is no net cost for the capture because the market price of methane is greater than the cost of methane abatement. In effect, reductions in oil and gas industry sources of methane emissions are low hanging fruits because methane related to agriculture and landfills are problematic.
The gross underestimation energy sector methane discharges indicates that the slight edge over agricultural sector responsibility for methane emissions may not be accurate. Present data has fossil fuel originated methane very closely behind agriculture, at 40 percent.
Then there is the matter of potency.
Methane has a global warming impact 80 times greater than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after released in the atmosphere, and then dissipates. By comparison, CO2 emissions hang around in the skies much longer.
Not surprisingly, methane reduction targets are now in vogue. But, fossil fuel industry greenwashing on methane reductions is facilitated by anarchy reigning on emissions measurements, reporting and verification.
This anarchy implies that methane targets may be nice for political appearances but are window-dressing if not accompanied with a combination of accountability standards along with compliance comprehensive policy and regulatory agendas.
Since energy sector methane emissions can be captured and sold for a net-profit, the IEA suggests that the oil and gas industry should shoot for methane zero-tolerance.
Regardless, at the COP26 conference, over 100 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030, based on 2020 levels. This falls far short of the Carbon Tracker conclusion that the energy sector must reduce methane GHG emissions by 75 percent by 2030 to cap global warming at 1.5°C by the end of the decade.
What’s more, the methane global consensus does not include binding agreements for individual countries. It is just an agreement to commit to reduce methane GHGs. Fifteen of the top 30 emitters, including Canada, signed the pact. Russia and China did not sign.
The European Union (EU), stands apart with its proposed Methane Strategy to decrease methane emissions from the oil, gas and coal with a non-binding reduction target of 80 percent by 2030 (base year TBD) and a comprehensive draft action plan that covers imports and global transparency. The EU draft has the makings of a world model.
The EU challenges are a tall order with more than 40 percent of its gas being methane heavy gas from Russia, representing greater emissions than coal.
The horrific barbaric colossal Russian invasion of Ukraine is already having an impact for the EU to accelerate its Fit for 55 plan to reduce GHGs by 55 percent based on 1990 levels and the 40 percent reduction in fossil fuel use by 2030. This acceleration may be a precursor for global groundwork on how each nation and/or region achieves energy independence and addresses climate change concurrently, the solutions being the same. The EU now has a working document to speed up a transition to renewables and biogas plus the manufacturing of clean energy technologies. The German government has tabled legislation to advance its 100 percent renewables goal by 15 years, the new goal fixed for 2035.
Hence, in the medium term, solutions for both global energy security and combatting climate change, are the same.
Global warming measurements and reporting misleading
The highly publicized pledges for methane emission reductions are often intentionally misleading, not only because of extraordinary underestimating.
That’s because the pledges from the public and private sectors do not adequately reflect that each greenhouse gas stays in the atmosphere for a different length of time.
The 20-year long high potency of methane can readily be statistically diluted by measuring methane’s climate impacts over a century. If so measured, one tonne of methane has an atmospheric warming impact equivalent to 26 metric tonnes of CO2. According to a Stanford University report, over a 20 year period, to comply with the Paris Agreement, methane GHG requirements should peg each tonne of methane as equivalent to 75 tonnes of CO2.
As one might expect, oil and gas companies tend to describe methane emissions over a 100-year time frame. Without international reporting norms, industry disclosures and targets are suspect.
Oil and gas supply chain methane anarchy
Methane emissions can be found over the entire oil and gas supply chain, including orphaned wells.
Upstream extraction methane emissions account for 75 percent of oil and gas sector methane emissions, the other 25 percent from downstream processing and transportation.
Upstream vented leaks are intentionally released, and fugitive leaks are “unintentional.”
The purpose of venting upstream oil is to get rid of natural gas, an unwanted by-product. This gas is occasionally burned off or flared, but the combustion rates are typically incomplete, around 92 percent. The remaining 8 percent in CO2 equivalents ends up being as potent as the 92 percent combusted.
As for methane emissions from the gas value chain, they grossly exceed those of the oil sector. Pipeline leaks are the main culprit due to faulty and deteriorating equipment. The value chain also involves venting for pipeline maintenance.
Further on fossil fuel sector leaks, several additional factors highlight the importance of an energy transition.
First, Russia is among the largest emitters of methane due to leaks from its aging pipeline infrastructure, a 40 percent rise in methane escaping in 2020.
Second, the IEA assessment of leaks from fossil fuel pipelines are equivalent to how much gas in consumed by Europe annually.
Third, fugitive GHGs from Russian gas pipelines are worse for the environment than those of European coal use for which Russian gas is meant to serve as a solution.
Fourth, no one has a precise assessment of methane leaks from fracking. The U.S. Physicians for Social Responsibility has concluded that methane leaks from fracking are substantial fabricators of GHGs. Shale gas GHGs are believed to be worse than coal.
Since shale gas is a prime feedstock for LNG facilities, should the US$1.3 trillion in global LNG infrastructure plans reach fruition, the emissions associated with fracking and LNG plants could surpass those of emissions from coal-fired plants under construction and in pre-construction planning.
Permafrost melting wild card
The greatest methane wild card is the pending impact on the melting of permafrost, there being inestimable humongous amounts of methane being below the permafrost. With the Arctic region warming twice as fast as the global average, arctic ice sheet and permafrost melting will compound global climate impacts by releasing more CO2 and methane, while increasing ocean temperatures. The costs of global warming stemming from this could be in the order of US$70 trillion.
European Union global leadership potential
The December 2021 European Commission draft regulatory proposals to achieve up to an 80 percent methane GHG cutback entails a long list of measures. Some of these measures are setting standards for measurement, reporting and verification; requiring companies to measure and quantify asset-level methane at the source; performing extensive surveys to detect and repair methane leaks; banning venting and flaring, except in specific circumstances; and obligating Member States to have methane mitigation plans that encompass abandoned and inactive wells.
To integrate responsibilities for methane emissions associated with fossil fuel imports and concurrently foster a global methane climate agenda, the measures comprise saddling EU companies importing fossil fuels to provide reliable methane data from their respective suppliers; plus details on how the suppliers mitigate their emissions.
Especially important, the Commission’s proposals take aim at establishing standardized global transparency rules indicating the performance and reduction efforts of countries and fossil fuel companies; a public transparency data base comprising data from operators and importers; and a global monitoring tool to identify methane hot spots, within and outside the EU.
As well, the proposed EU plan calls for a review of methane measures in 2025 with an objective to migrate to stricter requirements for fossil fuel imports.
The adoption of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are the steppingstones for the U.S. to address oil and gas industry underreporting anarchy on methane emissions.
Under the Inflation Reduction Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has dedicated US$1.55 billion to monitor and reduce methane emissions, from which US$700 million will go for pollution reduction at marginal wells and US20 million for monitoring.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law earmarks US5 billion to plug non-producing and orphaned wells. Such wells emitted 275,000 tonnes of methane in 2020.
With these legislative foundations, in November 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed its proposals to update the Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan. The new plan would provide for better accountability and new investments in the oil and gas sector which represents one-third of U.S. methane emissions. The existing regulations fall short in their focus on oil and gas venting and flaring, well-plugging and abandonment.
The EPA revisions would require regular leak monitoring and checking for leaks for all well sizes plus cover 645,000 km of previously unregulated pipelines. Small wells received attention since the 700,000 sites that produce less than 15 barrels/day account for 50% of emissions from U.S. wells.
Other recommendations call for improved safety stipulations, among them, automatic shut-off valve requirements and lower corrosion thresholds.
Very hard ball are the EPA proposal exigencies for the plugging of non-producing, abandoned and orphaned wells. Abandoned wells amount to 2.7 million oil wells and 600,000 gas wells, 40% of which are unplugged.
China’s coal sector, the world’s largest, is a major source of global methane GHGs. When coupled with China’s oil, gas and biomass, China accounts for one-fifth of the global total of energy sector methane emissions. This puts China in the number one fossil fuel methane emitter position, rating 50 percent more than the next two largest emitters in the sector, the U.S and Russia.
In Canada, methane upstream supply chain emissions are not covered by the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act for which the federal authority was confirmed on March 25, 2021 by the Supreme Court of Canada. The Act establishes a carbon pricing system for those provinces and territories that do not have their own comparable system.
Sadly, the Trudeau administration new green deal announced December 11, 2020, procrastinates on methane. The methane regulations will not come into effect until 2025. Canada had a methane emission reduction agreement with the Obama administration to become effective beginning 2020. Canada dropped the ball when Trump took over.
Another tool to establish consistency on methane emission reporting is one conceived by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN backbone on climate research and action. The IPCC has come up with the Global Warming Potential (GWP) mechanism. GWP addresses the climate impact differences between various greenhouse gases and CO2. Accordingly, GWP, zeros in on underestimates of methane atmospheric consequences and is becoming a standard for government and corporate policies. It is especially handy for the global trading of carbon credits.
That said, there is a case for using GWP for setting different climate targets for the different types of GHG emissions. This is within the realm of the possible since satellites can identify and measure most methane origins. Notwithstanding, while satellite technologies continue to improve, they still cannot detect methane from equatorial, offshore and northern areas.
With respect to the private sector,, some oil and gas companies have joined the voluntary World Bank Zero Routine Flaring by 2050 initiative. Of course, it is perilous to put one’s faith in voluntary agendas. Nevertheless, Shell has indicated it will end routine flaring by 2025.
Where the light gets in
There is “crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
That light filters in through two cracks.
First, not only does the EU methane reduction target constitute global leadership, but also there are reasons for optimism with the European Parliament and EU Member States adopting variations of the Commission’s standardized extraterritorial methane divulgation proposals and remedial measures. And the Russia-Ukraine war is expediting an EU green economy transition that might serve as a model for the world to address climate change.
On international norms, ditto for the IPCC’s GWP.
Assessment tools such as these are essential for methane policy and regulatory action.
Second, since fossil fuel methane emissions can be captured to sell methane at a net profit, if the world followed Norway’s lead in reducing methane intensity from their oil and gas sector, global fossil fuel industry methane emissions could fall by an incredible 90 percent.
These cracks are where the light is filtering in.
And Canada can do better.