Skip to main content

'There is just no excuse': Why do methane emissions remain 'stubbornly high'?

IEA warns that methane emissions from the global energy sector fell only fractionally last year, despite projects to cut methane leaks providing hugely attractive returns on investment.

Oil and gas rig, with evening sky and sunset in background

Image via Shutterstock/Calin Tatu

By rights methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry should be one of the easiest climate problems to fix. Sources of emissions are concentrated around oil, gas and coal infrastructure, they are increasingly easy to detect, and in most cases fixing leaks that lead to methane emissions results in sizeable financial savings for operators.

And yet, according to the latest report from the influential International Energy Agency (IEA), methane emissions remain "stubbornly high".

The latest update to the agency's Global Methane Tracker found the global energy industry was responsible for 135 million tonnes of methane emissions in 2022, only slightly below record levels seen in 2019.

This is a significant problem. Methane is responsible for around 30 percent of the rise in global temperatures experienced since the Industrial Revolution and because the gas is both a short-lived and very powerful greenhouse gas, it is widely regarded as critical to stopping temperature increases spirally beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius target set by the Paris Agreement in the near term.

Moreover, methane emissions from energy infrastructure account for around 40 percent of those attributable to human activity. Agriculture may remain the largest single source of man-made methane emissions, but it also presents a hugely complex technical, economic and even cultural challenge, given cattle and land use change result in literally millions of diffuse sources of emissions on farms that are working to meet growing demand for meat and dairy.

In contrast, methane from energy infrastructure is such a readily solvable problem that the IEA today struggled to conceal its frustration at the industry's continued failure to deliver sustained emissions reductions.

"Our new Global Methane Tracker shows that some progress is being made but that emissions are still far too high and not falling fast enough — especially as methane cuts are among the cheapest options to limit near-term global warming," said IEA executive director Fatih Birol. "There is just no excuse. The Nord Stream pipeline explosion last year released a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere. But normal oil and gas operations around the world release the same amount of methane as the Nord Stream explosion every single day."

The report stresses that cutting methane emissions remains "one of the most effective ways to limit global warming and improve air quality in the near term." It calculates that methane emissions from oil and gas alone could be reduced by 75 percent using existing technologies, accusing the industry of inaction on an issue that is "often very cheap to address."

"Less than 3 percent of the income accrued by oil and gas companies worldwide last year would be required to make the $100 billion investment in technologies needed to achieve this reduction," the report states.

Worse still, such investments would deliver attractive returns given they would be primarily focused on fixing gas leaks from existing infrastructure, which would in turn provide oil and gas firms with more gas to sell at a time of sky high prices.

The report concludes that stopping all non-emergency flaring and venting of methane is the most impactful measure countries can take to rein in emissions. It calculates that around 260 billion cubic metres (bcm) of methane is lost to the atmosphere each year from oil and gas operations, but an estimated three-quarters of this could be retained and brought to market using tried and tested policies and technologies. "The captured methane would amount to more than the European Union's total annual gas imports from Russia prior to the invasion of Ukraine," the IEA said. 

A crackdown on methane emissions has been made easier still by the advance of satellite technologies capable of detecting large methane leaks. The IEA's report has started to make use of such data, noting that last year alone satellites identified more than 500 super-emitting events from oil and gas operations and a further 100 from coal mines.

Admittedly, tackling methane emissions from coal mines can be a more complicated and capital intensive technical and economic challenge for operators, with the IEA acknowledging in a new paper released today alongside its Tracker report that "while the industry may take action on its own, most mitigation opportunities are not cost-effective without pricing externalities."

However, its new paper also stresses that while there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach a range of proven policy measures and technologies can serve to tackle emissions from operating and closed coal mines at relatively low cost.

"It is easier to incorporate abatement technologies into coal developments if these are considered from the outset," the report states. "High-concentration sources of methane can be captured if emissions-reduction measures are planned prior to the start of mining operations. Degasification wells and drainage boreholes can capture methane from coal deposits, for example, which reduces the potential for emissions during production. These systems can also be applied to working mines before operations migrate to new areas of coal exploration or after operations have ceased in an area… Coal phase-out policies can incorporate methane abatement to minimise climate impacts, generate energy and jobs."

Overall, the report suggests there are cost-effective and existing measures that could more than halve coal mine methane emissions, a reduction of 22 million tonnes that would avoid a climate impact equivalent to 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions, or the total annual CO2 emissions of Russia.

Anatoli Smirnov, methane analyst at energy think tank Ember, who provided input into the IEA report, welcomed the focus on coal-related emissions. "Coal is still one of the biggest culprits when it comes to methane," he said. "More than a year on from the Global Methane Pledge we've yet to see improvements. The IEA's report shows that it is possible to mitigate most of the world's coal mine methane emissions at low cost."

The Global Methane Pledge, unveiled at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in late 2021, saw a host of leading economies commit to slashing methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. But the IEA's report suggests many countries are in danger of missing this goal, while many other major sources of methane emissions are still yet to sign up to the group.

For its part, the oil and gas industry insists it is making progress. Bjorn Otto Sverdrup, chair of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative — which brings together 12 oil and gas majors who together represent almost 30 percent of global production — said the group had collectively cut methane emissions by 40 percent since 2017.

"The IEA is right to point out that there's a huge opportunity to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and much of the technology to do that already exists," he said. "Eliminating methane emissions from oil and gas operations is one of the quickest ways to meet the Paris Agreement targets and OGCI has already shown strong industry leadership on this critical issue."

He added that the group was committed to delivering zero methane emissions worldwide and had over 70 signatories signed up to its Aiming for Zero initiative, which is "helping to steer the wider oil and gas industry toward further methane reductions by shifting the industry's mindset to treat emissions of the gas as seriously as the industry treats safety." 

But the IEA report is clear that the industry as a whole is still not moving nearly fast enough to tackle methane emissions and has run out of excuses, especially given the bumper profits the sector has recorded over the past year.

As the report stresses, the methane emissions intensity of oil and gas operations varies greatly across countries, with the best performing countries having an emissions intensity over 100 times lower than the worst performers. "High emissions intensities from oil and gas operations are not inevitable," it states. "They are an ‘above-ground issue' that can be addressed cost-effectively through a well-established combination of high operational standards, firm policy action and technology deployment."

The extent of that cost effectiveness is genuinely remarkable. "The technologies and measures to prevent methane emissions from oil and gas operations are well known and have been deployed in multiple locations around the world," the report states. "Key examples include leak detection and repair campaigns, installing emissions control devices, and replacing components that emit methane in their normal operations. Many measures can also save money because the outlays required to deploy them are less than the market value of the methane that is captured and can be sold."

It adds that based on average natural gas prices from 2017 to 2021, around half of the options to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations worldwide could be implemented at no net cost and could cut oil and gas methane emissions by around 40 percent.

If record high gas prices experienced over the past year are sustained around 80 percent of the options to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations worldwide could be implemented at no net cost, leading to a reduction in emissions of more than 60 percent. "Even if there was no value to the captured gas, almost all available abatement measures would be cost effective in the presence of an emissions price of only about 15 USD/tCO2-eq," the report concludes.

The continuing failure of oil and gas companies to respond to these economic realities means policymakers can expect to face ever more vocal calls for governments to intervene. 

The IEA report states that a range of "tried and tested" policies that place requirements on operators to undertake leak detection and repairs, deploy up to date equipment and introduce measures to limit non-emergency flaring and venting could cut global methane emissions from oil and gas operations in half. 

Birol hinted that one of the main reasons such actions have not become more widespread already is down to a simple lack of awareness.

"The untamed release of methane in fossil fuel production is a problem that sometimes goes under the radar in public debate," he said. "Unfortunately, it's not a new issue and emissions remain stubbornly high. Many companies saw hefty profits last year following a turbulent period for international oil and gas markets amid the global energy crisis. Fossil fuel producers need to step up and policy makers need to step in — and both must do so quickly."

It is hard to escape the sense that the failure to deliver deeper cuts in methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry is one of the rare instances where the problem really is just a lack of corporate focus and political will. The technologies are largely proven, the economics stack up and the case against regulations that would actually save companies money is pretty unanswerable, especially when governments are facing energy security threats and the oil and gas industry is enjoying such bumper profits.

As the IEA concluded, there really is no excuse.

This story first appeared on:


More on this topic