One of the most methane emitting events ever recorded, the Nord Stream pipeline explosions in 2022, released a huge amount of this very potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. What is striking, though: Normal oil and gas operations globally emit the same amount of methane as the explosion every single day. These emissions are in large parts preventable, they are unacceptable from a climate and air quality standpoint, and they are a colossal waste of precious resources against the backdrop of energy security concerns. Lisa Tostado analyzes the latest data on methane emissions from the energy sector and argues that the issue has not received the attention it deserved.
Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and is responsible for about 30% of the global warming that has already occurred. The energy sector – including oil, fossil gas, coal and bioenergy – accounts for nearly 40% of methane emissions from human activity. Tackling methane is one of the most important things that can be done to limit near-term temperature rise and improve air quality, and yet only 2% of climate mitigation spending addresses methane emissions.
A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that the global energy industry still emitted stubbornly high levels of methane in 2022, even as soaring energy prices made reducing them cheaper than ever. In 2022 alone, more than 500 super-emitting events were detected by satellites from oil & gas operations. A prior IEA report had found that taking average fossil gas prices from 2017 to 2021 – that is before the price surge due to the invasion of Ukraine – the annual investment required is less than the total value of the captured methane that could be sold. Ever since, the positive economics have improved even further.
The good news: a substantial share of methane emissions could be brought down relatively quickly and cheaply. Three quarters of emissions from oil and gas could be cut with existing technologies. Less than 3% of the net income earned by oil & gas companies in 2022 could fund the $100 billion investment needed to achieve them. Stopping all non-emergency flaring and venting of methane is the most impactful measure countries can take to rein in emissions. These captures could bring more additional fossil gas to market than the EU’s total annual gas imports from Russia prior to the invasion of Ukraine.
If it is so easy and cost-effective, why is it not happening more then? One reason seems to be an information problem: many companies are not aware of leaks, have no monitoring for emissions in place and are not aware of the cost effectiveness of abatement options. Secondly, despite increased interest in the methane problem in the past years, the reputational risk of not acting on it still does seem to be high enough, either. Thirdly, there is competition for investment capital within a company and methane abatement initiatives often do not get across the hurdle compared to simply an increase in production. Dr Lena Höglund-Isaksson, from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, said in the Guardian: “The profit margins in that sector are so high from simply increasing gas production, but the profit margins from reducing methane emissions are relatively small.” Lastly, the entity that needs to invest (mostly infrastructure) may not actually be the same actor as the one benefitting from selling the captured gas to the market.
New regulations are therefore inevitable to force companies to reduce their methane emissions. A good example is Norway: The methane intensity of its gas production is far below global averages, thanks to a combination of a mandatory greenhouse gas tax that applies to gas flares with a regulatory strategy. The flaring related methane releases dropped by 36% in the first years following the tax implementation. The US Inflation Reduction Act foresees a methane charge that starts at $900 per metric ton (tonne) of methane in 2024, increases to $1,200/tonne in 2025, and then $1500/tonne in 2026. Whilst a good start, the true and equitable costs of further polluting the atmosphere with this greenhouse gas are in a different ballgame for a country like the US, namely over $8,000 per metric ton, or even more when basing the calculations on the high short term warming potential of methane molecules.
For the EU, a supply chain perspective is crucial. Of the fossil gas consumed in the EU, 90% is imported, and 75-90% of the methane emissions resulting from these imports occur in third countries. Instead of doubling down on the ambition of the EU Methane Regulation and betting on more LNG (capacity), also from fracking which tends to produce substantially higher methane leakage than conventional production methods due to the high number of small wells, policy makers need to focus on reducing methane emissions along the supply chain and supporting exporting countries in doing so.
A focus of such measures could be the currently very leaky region of North Africa. It is already well connected to Europe via four operational pipelines and four LNG terminals, with large volume capabilities and significant spare export capacity in both pipelines and LNG terminals. By capturing gas from flaring, venting, and leaking in North Africa, Europe could, within 12-24 months, substitute up to 15% of Russian gas all while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. On a similar token, a recent analysis by S&P Global estimates that more than 80 billion cubic meters of methane could be captured and profitably brought to market by cutting preventable losses in six key export regions. This is equal to almost 60% of Europe’s pre-war annual imports from Russia. While North Africa and Nigeria face the most significant barriers, their spare export capacity provides a lucrative opportunity to monetize captured gas. As gas capture projects compete with new gas production, it is paramount to change course now. The EU as the world’s largest importer of gas and major contributor to the climate crisis has a particular responsibility in this.
 Another 100 super emitting events were seen at coal mines. There is also great potential for tackling methane emissions from coal mines – existing technologies alone could cut these by half. However, due to space constraints this article focuses on oil and gas methane emissions.