Homing in on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stands with those suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. UNEP is responding in a number of ways, including by supproting global efforts to protect biodiversity, to put an end to the illegal trade in wildlife, to safeguard the handling of chemicals and waste and to promote economic recovery plans that take nature and the climate emergency into account. This article is one of several highlighting UNEP’s duty to help nations build back better after the pandemic to increase resilience to future crises.

With scientists saying the polar ice caps are melting six times faster than in the 1990s there is an urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible to prevent catastrophic sea-level rise.

Methane is a powerful short-lived climate pollutant emitted by oil and gas extraction, livestock, wetlands, and landfills.

According to The Climate and Clean Air Coalition, methane’s global warming potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20 year timeframe. Methane has a big impact on climate change in the near-term which means that targeting it is an important tool in fighting a warming planet.

Currently there is uncertainty about the quantity of methane emitted from offshore global oil and gas infrastructure.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition supported research on methane emissions from oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico which was published on 9 March 2020 in Environmental Science and Technology.

One surprising conclusion is that the largest emitters were in shallower waters. 

Part of the  Oil and Gas Methane Science Studies, the study presents a novel method for measuring methane emissions that can be applied to offshore facilities across the globe.

There is a particular dearth of data when it comes to measurements of oil rigs in the ocean—in fact there are none in the Gulf of Mexico. In the United States, the majority of offshore oil and natural gas is drilled in the Gulf of Mexico where thousands of platforms are responsible for about 16 percent of the country’s crude oil production.

The study sheds light on two important characteristics of offshore emissions that should aid mitigation efforts: 1) the existence of a skewed distribution—a few sites account for a large proportion of total emissions, and 2) there are different emissions patterns between shallow and deep water facilities.

Each study targets different geographic regions, including urban areas in Europe, the North Sea, and parts of Australia, as well as different segments of the oil and gas supply chain. These studies will be done from aeroplanes, from boats, and on land.

So far, the Environmental Defense Fund, the European Commission, and the companies of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative have committed US$7.2 million to this research. The Coalition, which calls 69 governments and many more civil society organizations members, together with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), will then work with governments relevant to each study, linking policy and action to help address methane emissions.

The Coalition’s Oil and Gas Methane Partnership is also helping companies systematically manage their methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations.

With better data, oil and gas companies can more effectively prioritize their work to reduce methane emissions and governments can more effectively target policies that aim to do the same. 

Where do the leaks occur?

Methane leaks occur at various stages of the supply chain, including when it is extracted, processed, and transported. Often, major leaks are due to faulty maintenance which can, in some cases, be relatively easily addressed if the source is identified—such as a loose screw or a valve. Preventing gas leakage during transmission and distribution could reduce emissions from coal mining and the oil and gas sector by over 65 percent

There is increasing evidence that previous estimates of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry have been underestimated. One study recently published in Nature shows that it could be as much as by 25-40 percent.

Research was published by a team of Dutch scientists last year on how accidents in the oil and gas sector can release large amounts of methane in short periods of time. In one natural gas well in Ohio in the United States in February 2018, a single blowout released enough methane to rival a significant percentage of the man-made emissions of several European countries over an entire year.

UN Environment