• Methane is the second greenhouse gas in terms of climate-altering emissions, after carbon dioxide, and it is responsible for around 30% of current global warming compared to the pre-industrial period.
  • New US and European regulations on methane emissions related to fossil fuel extraction and exploration operations were announced during and before COP28.
  • In the context of new voluntary commitments in this regard by the oil & gas industry, the newly announced regulations strengthen calls for a binding international agreement.

United States and Europe seeking leadership on reducing methane emissions

Last Saturday, in the US pavilion of COP28 in Dubai, the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency), through administrator Michael S. Regan, announced a new regulation on methane. This will allow methane emissions originating from the (upstream) operations of extraction and exploration of fossil fuels of the American oil & gas industry to be reduced by almost 80% – compared to future emissions in the absence of this regulation. 

The final regulation is expected, between 2024 and 2038, to prevent the equivalent of the climate-altering emissions of the entire US electric production sector in 2021 and, in the year 2030 alone, the equivalent of the annual emissions of 28 million cars.

For the first time, producers will also be required to upgrade equipment and actively look for leaks in their wells and infrastructure. Companies will no longer be able to simply communicate a self-calculated estimate of the amount of methane leaking from their sites, but will have to make real measurements using sensors and other tools.

This is the translation, in practice, of the Biden administration’s desire to take on a leadership role on methane, a leadership claimed – however – by the European Union.

Again in Dubai, in fact, the President of the European Commission Von der Leyen underlined the new rules of the European Union. In November, a first agreement had been reached between the Council and the European Parliament on a similar regulation: the obligation to declare and directly measure methane emissions from the coal and oil & gas industries, accompanied by periodic inspections by the competent authorities and the obligation of immediate repair in case of leaks. The EU regulation will also apply, from 2027, to imports of natural gas; producers who want to export to the EU will have to comply with the European legislation. Furthermore, from 2030 a limit on the intensity of methane emissions is foreseen.

Why methane specifically

Methane is the second greenhouse gas in terms of climate-altering emissions, after carbon dioxide, and is responsible for around 30% of current warming compared to the pre-industrial period.

It is produced by landfills, agriculture, livestock farming (in particular cattle), but above all by the oil & gas sector (35% of the total, second only to agriculture), where methane can escape along the entire supply chain, from extraction to use. In particular, flaring (practice that consists of burning the excess gas extracted together with the oil) and venting (direct release of the gas into the atmosphere) are common practices in extraction operations.

Methane has an overall capacity to trap heat (technically GWP, global warming potential) equal to 84 times that of CO2 over a 20-year period. However, it remains in the atmosphere much less than CO2 and then turns into carbon dioxide. It has an average lifespan of around 12 years, compared to hundreds of years for CO2. The short stay in the atmosphere and the high GWP would therefore make it possible to obtain important mitigation results from its reduction already in the short term.

The IPCC and the IEA have repeatedly underlined the crucial role of methane in achieving the Paris objectives and, according to UNEP, a 45% reduction in human-caused methane emissions would avoid almost 0.3°C of global warming by 2045.

These results would also be obtained at a very low cost, if not even with a profit: according to the International Energy Agency, in fact, “around 40% of current methane emissions from global oil & gas activity could be avoided at zero cost”.

The Global Methane Pledge and China

At COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, the United States and the European Union had promoted the “Global Methane pledge”, a voluntary commitment to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030, compared to 2020 levels. Initially, 130 countries had signed the multilateral agreement.

Meanwhile, the number of signatory countries has grown and now includes more than 150 nations. Unfortunately, China, India and Russia are still missing.

China, however, despite not having formally joined the initiative, in the Sunnyland declaration of November 14th agreed with the United States to “implement their respective national action plans for methane” and to “develop their respective actions/objectives of methane reduction to include in the 2035 NDCs”.

Despite these commitments, methane emissions increased again in 2022.

COP28 and OGDC

At COP28, we saw the birth of a new agreement, again on a voluntary basis, supported by the Emirati presidency, called “Oil and Gas Decarbonisation Charter” (OGDC).

With it, fifty oil and natural gas producers have committed to limiting methane emissions due to fossil search and extraction operations to reduce them to almost zero by 2030, eliminating the practice of routine flaring.

The parties that have joined the agreement represent over 40% of global oil production: we are talking about giants such as Saudi Aramco, BP, ExxonMobil, Equinor, the Italian ENI and, obviously, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, of which Al Jaber is CEO.

Will it be the right time?

Over 320 civil society organizations have signed an open letter to the Presidency of COP28, with the aim of rejecting the charter in its entirety: without a formal commitment, voluntary agreements have very little relevance from a practical point of view. Above all, reducing methane emissions from upstream operations is “not enough”. The vast majority of climate-altering emissions from oil & gas, not covered by the Agreement, are linked to the use of the fuels produced and not to extraction and search operations. “The fact that the [oil & gas] industry, at this crucial moment of the climate emergency, is offering to repair the caused disasters by simply filing the edges as a substitute for a rapid phase-out of oil and gas is an insult.”

Speaking at COP28, Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley echoed the call, demanding a binding agreement to reduce these emissions: “If there is not a global agreement on methane that is mandatory, we will not get where we need to go [ …] The science is clear. If you want to be able to lower global warming, you need to control methane.”

Article by Elisa Terenghi, atmospheric physicist and volunteer of the Italian Climate Network.

Cover: Infrared image of methane emissions from a European plant. Credits to Clean Air Task Force.

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