By: Reuters – Next month the European parliament is expected to vote on landmark legislation that would put a new onus on the fossil fuel sector to measure and report methane emissions and then act to reduce them.
If passed, it would help the EU meet its obligations as part of the Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions by 30% by 2030.
But since the European Commission tabled proposals on methane in 2021, they have been watered down – most recently by energy ministers of the 27-member bloc. Just as other countries are toughening up on methane, Europe appears to be going backward. Worst still, there seems no compromise in sight.
MEPs are split on whether rules on leak detection and repair of oil and gas infrastructure should be limited only to EU operations. This would cover only a fraction of emissions, as the EU is the world’s biggest oil and gas importer, and thus the biggest importer of methane emissions.
“On the one hand, we have groups that are saying, ‘don’t be too quick’,” says Jutta Paulus, a member of the parliamentary Greens party who is co-rapporteur, or negotiator, for the legislation. “But we also have groups saying we shouldn’t do it at all”, for fear of jeopardizing the security of supply. Separately, proposals on the frequency of inspections of wells and other assets now range from monthly to annually, whereas the Commission had proposed quarterly inspections.
What makes the impasse incredible is that tackling methane – more potent than carbon dioxide, but shorter-lived – is seen as the quickest, and least expensive, mechanism to slow global warming in the short term. And the technology to do it is available today.
A study commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund Europe showed that cutting leaks could prevent some 80 billion cubic meters of methane being lost to the atmosphere. That makes it critically important for tackling climate change. It is also important for energy security. The loss amounts to 60% of pre-war imports from Russia, says Flavia Sollazzo, who leads EDF’s methane campaign. Preventing leaks will mean gas is not wasted and can be put back into the economy.
The International Energy Agency has calculated that while $11 billion globally would be required annually to cut fossil fuel methane emissions by 75% by 2030, as the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) net-zero scenario requires, that sum is less than the total value of the gas that could be sold, so the industry would actually save money.
“The sooner we start gathering data and addressing the loopholes that derive from the fact that we don’t have data, the sooner we can apply it to other regions and to what we import into the EU,” adds Sollazzo.
Indeed at COP27 – alongside the United States, Japan, Canada, Norway, and Singapore – the EU committed to “working towards the creation of an international market for fossil energy that minimizes flaring, methane and CO2 emissions across the value chain to the fullest extent practicable, as we also work to phase down fossil fuel consumption.”.
As the EU struggles, other countries are moving ahead. Canada is proposing to require companies to inspect their infrastructure monthly, fixing the leaks they find as part of efforts to reduce the sector’s methane emissions by 75% by 2030 (compared with 2012).
Ecuador, Colombia, and Argentina are all getting serious about methane, with Colombia at the forefront of Latin American action on flaring, suggests Jonathan Banks, who leads international efforts by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) to cut methane.
Nigeria has brought down emissions from unwanted gas flared or vented by oil companies, by capturing it and marketing it. Now CATF is working to help the Lagos government implement its ideas on cutting small-scale flaring. It is proposed that the gas be captured and provided for free to third parties, who could use it to displace the wood and biomass currently used in home cooking.
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just completed consultations on measures to achieve an 87% reduction in oil and gas methane emissions by 2030. The current legislation aims for 75%.
While that regulatory process unfolds, a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will reach not only those emitters covered by the EPA (until the new regulation comes into force), but also those outside its process.
These include offshore oil and gas and LNG export terminals, which will all be taxed for emissions above certain thresholds. The IRA also provides $1.5 billion to the EPA to support monitoring and methane-reduction efforts. “The methane fee does two things,” says Banks. “One, it accelerates action, because it goes into effect really quickly. And two, it makes sure that we have much broader coverage to bring in sources that wouldn’t be covered under our extremely complex regulatory regime.”
Crucially it also requires companies to make direct measurements, instead of relying on estimates. “We’ve always found (that) when companies start looking, they also start fixing,” adds Banks. “And the more you look the more you reduce – hence why countries are moving to more frequent inspections.”
Indeed, all the evidence suggests that methane emissions are dramatically under-reported by governments. A recent study suggests the UK’s emissions from its oil and gas sector were five times what it reported in 2019.
The toolkit for countries and companies is growing. The United Nations Methane Alert and Response System (MARS), announced at COP27, is using data from satellites like the European Sentinel 5-P, which sweeps the globe daily. It can’t see in detail, but the information it picks up can be used to point satellites deploying spectral imaging sensors to get a better view of where methane emissions are coming from.
At the end of the year, EDF hopes to launch MethaneSAT, which it says will be able to identify how much methane is escaping from where, as well as what happens over time – enabling anyone to see whether a problem is being fixed.
Alongside MARS, the U.N.’s International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) is collecting and integrating data on methane emissions from a wide variety of data sources, including that reported by the 94 companies that are members of the Oil & Gas Methane Partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative launched by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which also includes the European Commission and the UK government.
The IMEO provides “a service to governments in terms of how to best focus their policies or how to get a sense of their emission levels,” explains Manfredi Caltagirone, who heads the U.N. programme. For example, in the U.S. around 50% of emissions may come from marginal wells just producing a few barrels a day, “so the fact that you don’t see large, super-emitting events doesn’t mean your oil and gas operations are clean.”
If doubters in the EU can be convinced to take tougher action, they’ll help underpin these global efforts.