A leading environmental think-tank has accused the UK government of allowing the fossil fuel industry to waste a large amount of methane gas.
Green Alliance says oil and gas companies are wasting enough methane to power more than 700,000 UK homes. It says high-energy prices mean more of the gas should be captured and used.
A UK oil and gas company spokesperson disputed this, saying it was not profitable to capture all of it. Methane alongside carbon dioxide is considered one of the main contributors to global warming by scientists and while it makes up fewer emissions, methane is around 80 times more potent in the context of warming.
“It’s a scandal,” Dustin Benton of Green Alliance told BBC News. “The government should force these companies to capture the methane they’re currently wasting.”
UK methane emissions have fallen significantly since 1990, but in recent years progress has slowed down.
“The big attraction for reducing methane is you get a big bang for your buck very quickly in terms of tackling climate change,” Professor Dave Reay from the University of Edinburgh told BBC News. “If we cut emissions very quickly we’ll see that impact in terms of reduced warming in the atmosphere very quickly.”
The majority of UK methane emissions come from farming and waste disposal, reducing methane leakage from those sources is complex, and cutting down on it in the oil and gas production that accounts for 11% of emissions is considered far easier.
The vast bulk of the UK oil and gas industry is located offshore in the North Sea. Methane is brought to the surface as a routine part of the production, often leaking out of its pipes.
The UK’s oil and gas industry regulator, the North Sea Transition Authority, published a series of guidelines on methane emissions. They include the goal of “zero routine flarings and venting” by 2030 and states that “flaring and venting and associated emissions should be at the lowest possible levels in the circumstances.” But critics say there’s not enough monitoring or enforcement.
In October 2021 the International Energy Agency (IEA) calculated that 45% of global methane emissions could be stopped at no net cost to the oil and gas companies.
Now, stopping emissions should even be profitable, says Green Alliance; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent gas prices soaring, meaning it should now be cost-effective for almost all the wasted gas to be captured and used.
“We estimate that around 750,000 homes could be heated this winter if we stopped flaring and instead piped that gas into people’s homes,” said Mr Benton. “In terms of leakage it’s a bit more unclear but we think it’s between 100,000 and 150,000 homes that are just being lost into the atmosphere.”
Both the fossil fuel industry and the government says it’s not that simple and point to steady reductions in methane emissions in recent years as proof of progress.
“The volumes that are being vented and flared are not large in the context of UK greenhouse gas emissions,” says Charles McAllister from UK Onshore Oil and Gas. “Some of these facilities are quite old. To repurpose them to capture what the Environment Agency would call “de minimis” (lacking importance) volumes of methane is not economically viable.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy said the government is “working diligently with regulators to drive down methane emissions from oil and gas operations in the North Sea.”
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