The Danger of Big Oil’s New Methane Emissions Pledge

A gas flare at a Total refinery in Donges, France.
A gas flare at a Total refinery in Donges, France.
Photo: Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP (Getty Images)

On Monday, 62 oil majors that represent 30% of the world’s oil and gas production signed an international agreement to report methane emissions with a far higher level of transparency.

The pledge, signed by the likes of BP, Shell, and Total, is a part of the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, led by the United Nations Environmental Program, the European Union, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Each year, the partnership will publish a report on companies’ emissions and how they compare to reduction targets. It’s a big step but also not in line with what’s needed to really address the climate crisis.

Emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with more than 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide in the short term, are on the rise. Recent research found that global annual methane emissions increased 9 percent from 2000 to 2017 due to the massive uptick in production of natural gas, especially through fracking. In a press statement, UNEP described the new reporting framework as a “new gold standard,” claiming it could help the fossil fuel industry deliver a 45% decrease in methane pollution by 2025 and a 60-75% reduction by 2030.

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The pledge is the latest sign that the climate movement has fossil fuel companies sweating. Recent years have seen a massive uptick in protests, lawsuits, and policy proposals demanding the world draw down its greenhouse gas emissions, and the pledge is a sign that corporations can’t ignore those calls any longer.

“For decades, the game plan of the oil majors like Exxon, Shell, and likely many others, was to deny the problem itself,” Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director of Corporate Accountability, said, referring to the troves of evidence that these fossil fuel giants waged misinformation campaigns to quell knowledge of the dangers their products pose to the climate. “What’s clear is the lengths that the industry is going to now, in order to appear that they’re responding to campaigners. It’s a testament to the broader pressure that they’re feeling right now.”

But in reality, the pledge does nothing to meet those organizers’ demands.

“We need an actual plan to stop fossil fuel expansion,” Madhusoodanan said. “At the core of it, what campaigners are demanding isn’t greater transparency around these emissions, it’s an actual plan to do that.”

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That’s not to say that misreporting emissions has not been an issue. For instance, in the months leading up to the UN’s 2016 international climate conference, China revealed that it had underestimated its coal burning by 17% and thereby undercounted its greenhouse gas emissions by 1 billion tons. On methane specifically, a 2020 study found that global estimates of methane emissions from natural sources have been far too high, suggesting that the oil and gas industry may be responsible for 40% more methane in the atmosphere than previous estimates.

“The oil and gas industry has routinely and massively underestimated methane emissions associated with drilling, which has helped them sell their bogus narrative that fracking is a cleaner form of fossil fuel extraction,” Mitch Jones, climate and energy program director at Food and Water Watch, said.

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But merely reporting methane emission levels will not result in the reduction, no matter how accurate those reports are.

“Without a plan to stop extracting fossil fuels and keep them in the ground, transparency isn’t a real solution...it’s really just greenwashing,” Madhusoodanan said.

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agency actually exhibiting regulatory power over these corporations or from from what it seems here is this more about an industry led voluntary initiative, but at the end of the day there’s going to be about more transparency

At best, this pledge could make it easier to push companies to meet more ambitious pollution targets, but do nothing to enforce that they make real reductions. But at worst, it could lend legitimacy to companies that signed by giving them cover to say they’re taking on the climate crisis even if they don’t do anything to actually lower their emissions. Companies that signed the pledge might continue with their same polluting business plans, and yet could be seen as more climate-friendly than those which didn’t (notable ones include Chevron and Exxon) even if they continue producing billions of barrels of climate-warming oil and gas every year.

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“The fact that the United Nations is a part of this is troubling. They stand to risk giving that official, United Nations tinge to these companies without doing anything to regulate them,” Madhusoodanan said. “We all know from what [UN scientists] are saying just how little time we have to respond to a problem in 10 years. We don’t want to look back at programs like this and be like, ‘oh, well, they were very transparent about their emissions, so at least we knew that they were continuing to increase.’”

Instead, we need binding, international regulations on fossil fuel production, and fast.

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“We cannot waste time on new industry-friendly emissions tracking. What we need to do is ban fracking and transition off fossil fuels,” Jones said. “There is no point in finding novel ways to quantify the harms inflicted on our planet by fossil fuel corporations.”

Staff writer, Earther

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Methane emissions from natural gas and petroleum systems in the US is reportedly somewhere around 30 percent of total, give or take. The rest coming from other things including agriculture, waste, land-use changes, industry, etc. A greenhouse gases inventory data presenter thingy is available on EPA website.

Anyway, let’s go to the atmosphere to see methane concentration in air at the Mauna Loa station. So a pretty good OK global average conditions proxy sample point. All this stuff is presented in NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory (global monitoring division) website. A really cool data presenter, btw.

Curve below in terms of nanomoles analyte (methane) per mole of gaseous mixture (air) or sort of parts per billion (ppb) over time.

Why methane in air concentration curve flattened out in the mid to late 90s through the mid to late aughts and then increased again is a mystery - to me at least. This curve needs to be flattened out again.