On the second day of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the United States and European Union launched a historic pledge to lower methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Joined by over 100 countries, the commitment won’t directly save the planet — but it might just buy enough time for it to be saved.
While most efforts to reduce emissions have been aimed at carbon dioxide, methane has a much more potent effect on heating the planet — roughly 86 times more powerful than CO2 over a 20-year period.
By focusing on methane emissions, through multi-nation commitments like the Global Methane Pledge adopted November 2, we can more effectively stem the rise in the Earth’s temperature than we could by limiting our efforts to CO2 alone.
On the face of it, that new target sounds like bad news for the natural gas industry.
Natural gas is essentially methane, and a big chunk of those emissions trace directly back to its production and distribution. Yet, rather than treat it as a death knell, the industry should regard the pledge — and tighter regulations on leakage and venting from facilities and pipelines that come with it — as opportunities to ensure that natural gas can continue as a transition fuel during decarbonization.
The more the industry cleans up its carbon footprint, the longer it remains viable.
But the industry needs to act sooner than later — and address not just some, but all of natural gas’ easier-to-eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. That means doing away with the practice of flaring and stopping the venting and leakage of methane entirely. Targeting industry practices like flaring, venting, and everyday leakage from pipelines and facilities may sound trivial, but addressing these would make a significant difference in the climate battle.
First, let’s look at flaring. According to Capterio, a UK-based gas flaring specialist, huge volumes of excess gas — equivalent to the total gas consumption of Europe’s two largest markets, Germany and the United Kingdom — are routinely burned off during oil production, resulting in CO2 emissions and the release of methane from incomplete combustion.
According to the World Bank, gas flaring worldwide creates some 400 million tons of CO2- equivalent emissions — a measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential — annually, though that is likely a conservative estimate. Often the result of technical, regulatory, or economic constraints, the greenhouse gas-intensive process generates no power and fails to realize more than $21 billion of potential revenue.
The practice is routine in oil-producing regions like the southwestern US, Russia, the Middle East, and Nigeria where no external carbon (or carbon-equivalent) price — a financial penalty for greenhouse gas emissions — exists as it does in places like Europe and California. That makes flaring a no-cost solution for oil and gas producers. If producers are serious about lowering emissions, they’ll apply an internal carbon price on flaring before one is imposed on them and incentivize the development of alternative solutions.
Boards, investors, and finance providers must also hold executives accountable for delivering on the World Bank’s “Zero Routine Flaring” goal by 2030. As of today, 49 oil companies and over 30 governments — including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia — have endorsed the pledge, but missing from the list are a few of the biggest offenders. To date, flaring worldwide has only been reduced 14% since 1996. That’s less than a paltry 1 billion cubic meters per year. To achieve the World Bank’s goal, flaring must be reduced yearly by around 15 bcm, between now and 2030.
But the industry’s major source of methane emissions is operational venting and leakage from vast networks of pipelines and valves. Venting and leakage together add another 5.7 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent per year to the atmosphere. That figure reflects the heightened potency of methane.
The more the industry cleans up its carbon footprint, the longer it remains viable
In an earlier report, we called on gas regulators to set a higher bar when it comes to maintenance, requiring operators to demonstrate containment or risk the revocation of licenses to operate. While recently announced new regulations would raise that standard, the industry could go a step beyond by budgeting for a significant increase in spending on maintenance now, even before problems are found.
For the industry, there’s a lot at stake.
While it will not be cheap to eliminate flaring, venting, and leakage, that investment pales against the trillions that could be lost on investments if natural gas is eliminated from the fuel mix sooner than later. Closing up these obvious emission sources also may narrow the 34 trillion cubic-meter gap between industry pledges to cut future gas production and the reduction in supply called for in the 2050 net-zero scenario from the International Energy Agency.
Gas regulators to set a higher bar when it comes to maintenance
We’re playing against time: Can we develop economically viable and scalable no-carbon energy alternatives, such as green hydrogen, before the planet’s temperature rises over pre-industrial levels exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius?
If achieving cleaner natural gas provides extra time for innovation and extends gas’ role in the energy transition, then getting rid of flaring, venting, and leakage now is really a very small price to pay.