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Energy firms' obstruction likely to prevent 75% target cut in methane emissions from materialising
By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Thursday, 7 October 2021
Global plans to curtail the vast majority of methane emissions from fossil fuel operations within ten years is unlikely to happen because of the obstruction and reluctance of the major companies in the sector, a University of Sussex energy expert has warned.
Dr Abigail Martin, Research Fellow in Energy Transitions in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, was responding to the publication today of a new International Energy Agency (IEA) report into cutting methane emissions from fossil fuel operations.
The report authors stated that tackling methane emissions from fossil fuel operations represents one of the best near-term opportunities for limiting the worse effects of climate change because of its short-lived nature in the atmosphere and the large scope for cost-effective abatement, particularly in the oil and gas sector.
The new report explores practical measures that governments and companies can take to secure a 75% reduction in methane emissions from fossil fuel operations as envisioned in the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 Roadmap.
Dr Abigail Martin says that monitoring methane emissions would be relatively easy if it wasn't for the obstruction and resistance of the big players in the oil and gas industry.
Among the world's biggest producers in the US, China and Argentina, effective domestic regulatory means of controlling methane emissions have been quashed by the industry's huge lobbying power.
Dr Martin says that rather than waiting for the industry mindset to change, the simplest way to cut methane emissions would be to cut gas production and find cleaner alternatives.
Dr Martin said: "The approaches outlined in the report hinge on the assumption that we can effectively monitor methane emissions. The vast majority of emissions come from a relatively small number of 'super-emitters', so in theory it could be easy to tackle these entities.
"However in practice, the current grasp on how much methane is being emitted, where and why is extremely lacking. Methane emissions – whether due to leaks or venting – is significantly undermeasured, which means data is being underreported to authorities, which means that the current goals likely reflect underestimates of the problem.
"Industry has been on the whole obstructive about methane releases. While some majors (predominantly from Europe, e.g. BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Eni and Equinor) have signed on to a new framework the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 – an initiative led by the UN, the EU and the US ENGO Environmental Defense Fund to improve transparency on methane reporting, the American majors and most state-owned oil companies are not participating. CEOs from these companies have joined the opaque industry-led alternative initiative (the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative). Given the past resistance from the oil and gas industry, any industry-only led initiatives should be viewed sceptically.
"In the absence of full transparency and cooperation from the oil and gas industry, policy makers are left without reliable methane monitoring, which is the foundation for all of the policy approaches in the regulatory toolkit presented in the report. As the report acknowledges, satellite technology could be helpful in theory, but in practice, there are material limitations to collecting reliable measurement, raising the prospect of relying on complex methane surveillance network comprised of satellites, drones and ground monitoring with infrared leak detection cameras where possible to detect methane emissions.
"Once detected, there is also the question of enforcement mechanisms available for specific regulatory regimes. Given the above, the most reliable set of policy tools for limiting methane are those that aim to limit natural gas production altogether.
"But even if the challenge of monitoring the vast and disparate methane emission sources could be perfectly addressed, there remains the question of whether the regulatory tools proposed in the report would be sufficient for reaching the stated reduction goals given the ongoing growth in gas production and consumption.
"The shale gas revolution and commercialization of fracking technologies has been the most important driver for expanding gas production, contributing to a natural gas glut that has encouraged oil and gas producers to dispose of gas rather than capture and market it. And, greater reliance on natural gas fired power—a cornerstone of climate policies in many jurisdictions – will continue to shore up the expansion of gas production unless policy makers find a way to ensure the displacement of fossil fuels with renewables (as opposed to simply the expansion of renewables alongside the expansion of fossil fuels).
"As unconventional oil and gas expansion continues, it is unlikely that diverse regulatory territories will have adequate regulation is in place. This is clear in the US, the oil and gas industry has successfully quelled the most effective policy proposals like methane severance tax. And the situation is no better in places like Argentina and China – the frontiers of shale gas development."