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Carbon Mapper calculates methane emissions up to 66% higher than US EPA admits

© Shutterstock / hkhtt hjMethane emissions.

Shallow offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico offshore is reportedly emitting far higher methane levels than previously suggested. This counteracts national actions to cut methane emissions to address climate change.

Carbon Mapper has identified methane loss of a different order of magnitude in shallow offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico than what has previously been reported.

The US has stepped front and centre in COP26 in pledging to solve the methane emission problem.

Oil and gas are the largest sources of methane and the problem must be addressed if 2030 and 2050 targets are to be reached.

As the Ukraine war continues, supply concerns are driving increased domestic production of, and investment in, oil and gas around the world. Addressing methane emissions far above those previously recorded could be both a critical step in climate action and at a significant economic cost.

Oil major decarbonisation plans don’t reach net zero and methane makes it worse

Given that it is becoming clear that the oil majors’ approach to net zero, and their decarbonisation pathways, are not compliant with Paris Agreement targets. That makes it a major concern if there have been miscalculations in how methane emissions have been assessed.

At the very least, it undermines a transparent understanding of the impact that today’s oil and gas operations have and at worst, it undercuts any hope that the oil industry has of achieving net zero in a reasonable and cost-effective manner.

Remote sensing methods have identified large methane plumes from offshore oil and gas platforms many times higher than those seen and reported. The team from Carbon Mapper calculated a methane loss rate of 23-66% from shallow offshore Gulf of Mexico operations compared to 3.3-3.7% reported by other studies of operations in the Permian basin.

Further surveys both in the Gulf and selected international offshore production areas are now planned with aircraft and satellites to assess overall methane loss rates.

Global Methane Pledge to cut 30% of methane by 2030

The finding goes against the efforts the US has made and the impression it has given of being on top of this particular climate problem. It also appears to make a mockery of country and company commitments to cut methane emissions as a matter of urgency and raises further questions about the externality impacts of oil production.

Methane is known to be one of the most impactful GHGs. Its warming potential is estimated to be 80 times that of CO2 by the IPCC in the short term Rapidly reducing methane emissions from energy, agriculture, and waste is regarded as the single most effective strategy to keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5˚C within reach while providing co-benefits including improving public health and agricultural productivity.

The most applauded pledge announced at the Glasgow COP 26 was the Global Methane Pledge, which commits 121 nations and other supporters to reducing their overall emissions by 30% by 2030, compared with 2020 levels. If current methane levels are higher than the baseline that makes the goal even harder to achieve.

The US and the EU drove this policy and the US doubled up by publishing its Action Plan. This includes new EPA rules on methane from oil and gas (currently the largest source of methane), tackling venting on public lands and upgrading pipeline rules, as well as addressing landfill-related methane.

However, this latest analysis appears to present a darker face than the one given by official pronouncements and confirms previous work by the US Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) who collaborated with more than 140 industry experts in their examination of the problem.

Disconnect between EPA reports and independent research a concern

Using a range of scientific techniques including aerial surveys equipped with methane sensors, the EDF identified vastly higher methane emissions than those recorded by the US Environmental Protection Agency. It uncovered annual releases of 13 million tonnes annually, 60% higher than the EPA’s reported 8 million tonnes.

The Environmental Protection Agency proposes emissions guidelines and performance standards under the Clean Air Act aimed at cleaning methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, the country’s largest source of methane emissions.

The technology that would therefore need to be applied to Gulf of Mexico production would change the economics of it dramatically. The Gulf continues to be the nation’s primary offshore source of oil and gas, generating about 97% of all US OCS oil and gas production.

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