Hi. Yesterday was a big day not just for the US, but for the future of Earth’s climate too. Joe Biden returned the country to the Paris climate accord, triggering a need for the US to submit a carbon-curbing plan within 30 days. That will probably be a placeholder, superseded in a few months by a bolder one aligned with Biden's goal of a fully low carbon electricity system by 2035, former White House climate adviser John Podesta tells me. As the US is the world’s second biggest greenhouse gas emitter, the plans matter to us all.
But the Paris Agreement isn’t today’s focus. This week’s Fix the Planet is about another area Biden is taking action on: the huge, planet-warming plumes of methane released by the oil and gas industry.
It’s a neglected problem, but a potential quick climate win, so bear with me. Methane is much more short-lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but is about 28 times more powerful at warming Earth when averaged over 100 years. (Worse still, that number will rise in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change later this year, but that’s a story for another day.)
Methane’s greater potency provides urgency to doing something. On Monday, the International Energy Agency (IEA) laid out the scale of oil and gas’s methane problem, and steps to tackle it. And tomorrow, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will, fingers crossed, take a new satellite from Canadian company GHGSat into orbit to track the methane in unprecedented detail. Scroll down for more.
An oil derrick in Texas. The US oil and gas industry is the second biggest emitter of methane, after Russia. Iran comes third. Photo: DSZC/Getty Images
Precisely how big is the methane problem? Precision is not something we have for methane from oil and gas production. As Mark Brownstein at US non-profit the Environmental Defense Fund says, we know quite a bit about US emissions because of detailed field studies collecting data from wells, processing facilities and pipelines. But for the rest of the world, it’s largely a guess based on the estimated number of oil and gas facilities in each country. Where we do have actual data, emissions have been shown to be roughly 60 per cent higher than these so-called engineering estimates, showing we are underestimating the problem. “We need to do a better job,” says Brownstein, of monitoring efforts.
The IEA is trying. Its methane tracker, which came out on Monday, estimated global emissions from oil and gas in 2020 at around 70 million tonnes. The agency says that is equivalent to all of the European Union’s annual CO2 emissions from energy. “It’s a huge, huge amount of emissions,” says Fatih Birol at the IEA. In case you’re wondering why fossil fuel companies are allowing so much methane to escape, one big reason is much of the gas is released by firms trying to produce oil, which don’t want the gas. That’s when venting to the atmosphere and flaring (burning) happens.
What progress are we making? Well, 70 million tonnes is about 10 per cent down on 2019, making it the biggest annual drop the IEA has recorded. Tim Gould at the IEA says that although there is high uncertainty in the figures, “in all probability, this was the largest [drop] ever”. Still, the reduction is nothing to celebrate: the agency thinks it is mostly due to reduced oil and gas production because of the pandemic. Moreover, the fall shows the scale of the challenge to meet climate change goals. Gould says a similar cut is required every year for the next decade to keep the world on track for the Paris Agreement’s target of holding temperature rises to 1.5°C.
Nonetheless, Julien Perez at the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) – a group of 12 firms including BP, ExxonMobil and Shell that represent almost a third of global oil production – thinks such steep reductions are plausible. “You could cut very significantly at the super-emitters,” he says, in reference to the sites leaking the largest amounts of methane. The group has a target of reducing methane intensity – the amount of emissions leaked as a percentage of the gas it sells – to 0.2 per cent by 2025. In 2017, it was 0.3; by 2019, it fell to 0.23. Perez says provisional figures suggest it fell again in 2020.
What are the best ways to get these emissions down? It might sound basic, but monitoring is key. GHGSat launched a demonstration methane-tracking satellite in 2016, followed by a much-higher resolution version in September 2020. That clearer picture revealed things were worse than thought, by picking up smaller sources of methane. “By far and away the largest emissions we see are from central Asia. Relative to what we saw with our demonstration satellite, we are now tracking over 20 sources,” says Stephane Germain at GHGSat. “The total emissions are about three times larger than what we’d previously been seeing. It’s a real eye-opener.” He adds that methane emissions from coal mining are “surprisingly large”, with hotspots including Shanxi province in China, Queensland in Australia and parts of the US.
When methane leaks are identified, we know what to do, says Brownstein.“Making sure flanges on connections between pipes are tight, making sure pressure relief valves are operating properly, operating gas pipelines below their maximum throughout, so not forcing too much gas through a small aperture. Finding and fixing leaks,” he says.
As firms can sell the methane, fixing those leaks often pays for itself. Normally about 40 to 50 per cent of such abatement has no net cost, says Christophe McGlade at the IEA. But because the price of natural gas fell through the floor last year, that figure fell to about 10 per cent. It shows the need for measures such as carbon pricing, which could even out such fluctuations. Other regulations are needed too, such as the progressive measures implemented by the state of Colorado, says the IEA.
A methane plume identified in Queensland, Australia, by GHGSat.
What are we missing? You may think the OGCI is just engaged in greenwash, but at least its members are measuring methane and trying to get it down. Still, the obvious problem is its members are just a tiny slice of the methane pie: they account for less than 2 million tonnes in 2019, out of a total of more than 75 million tonnes that year. In the US, the world’s biggest oil and gas producer, about 70 per cent of production is by independent companies – which Brownstein says points to the need for regulation by states and the federal government. National oil and gas companies are big culprits too. Russia, where oil and gas production is overwhelmingly a state-owned affair, is the number one methane emitter from oil and gas, followed by the US and Iran.
What does the future hold? Biden is expected to rapidly repeal Donald Trump’s roll back of Barack Obama’s federal methane regulations. The European Commission, which published a methane strategy last October, is expected to draw up legislation this year on how to tackle the problem. Then there is the impetus from the COP26 climate summit in November: the IEA wants to see action on methane in more of the plans countries are due to submit ahead of the summit. Perhaps more controversially, it also thinks methane reduction efforts should be part of post-covid-19 recovery schemes, arguing they could provide jobs for workers made redundant by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, our eyes in space are getting better and better. Germain says the satellite he hopes to launch tomorrow has a resolution down to 25 metres, improved from 30 metres in last year’s one, and 50 metres on the 2016 version. The optics have also been tweaked to sharpen the focus. Next year, the Environmental Defense Fund’s own methane-tracking satellite is due to launch, in a bid to better monitor the world’s oil and gas methane hotspots. The independent data it yields will be crucial to demonstrating that firms are keeping to their word, says Brownstein. “No company goes to their investors and says ‘Hey, we were profitable last year, you can trust us’. They present financial data that can be independently audited and verified. Environmental performance is no different,” he says.
Growth in wind and solar power across the EU isn’t just helping to cut carbon emissions – it’s also reducing water and air pollution, finds the European Environment Agency. No big surprise, but worth a look.
Among the suite of Joe Biden’s climate actions is his decision to rescind a permit for Keystone XL. You may never have heard of this pipeline to take oil from Canada to the US, but its death is a big blow to North American fossil fuel interests and a victory for a long-running battle to stop it.
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