Quick and cheap methane emission reductions are expected to come to the energy industry as the European Union laid out its strategy to tackle the damaging gas, a move embraced by industry voices and environmentalists alike.

The EU’s long-awaited plan will see legislation proposed next year requiring oil and gas companies to monitor and report methane emissions and repair leaks. It will consider banning venting and flaring.

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EU Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson said: “While the energy, agriculture and waste sectors all have a role to play, energy is where emissions can be cut the quickest with least costs.”

At least 25% of the world’s warming is caused by methane emissions from human activities, including agriculture, production and use of fossil fuels, and landfill waste.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the oil and gas industry can deliver a 75% reduction in methane emissions with technology available today, with more than half of this achievable at no net cost to the industry.

Industry playing its part

“This is a positive step which we greatly welcome. Any comprehensive effort to limit global warming must include strong, ambitious and urgent action to stamp out emissions of this potent greenhouse gas,” said Shell’s integrated gas and new energies director, Maarten Wetselaar.

“The Commission's proposal on monitoring, reporting and verification processes for energy-related methane emissions will help to understand supply chain emissions of all gas sold in the EU and will enable other policies that hinge on credible quantification of emissions,” Wetselaar said in a LinkedIn post.

“I strongly believe that a methane performance standard of 0.20% should be set for all gas sold in the EU market, including from imports, from 2025,” Wetselaar added.

Norwegian giant Equinor also embraced the strategy.

“While gas releases significantly less CO2 than coal when combusted, methane emissions during production and distribution reduce this advantage. Minimising methane emissions is therefore essential,” Equinor said in a statement.

“We have estimated Equinor’s methane intensity for the upstream and midstream part of the value chain which we control to be as low as 0.03%. We aim to maintain a low methane intensity,” the company added.

Strategy falling short

However, prompting criticism, the EU stopped short of imposing binding standards on natural gas sold in the bloc, the Commission saying only that it will “engage in a dialogue with its international partners and explore possible standards, targets or incentives for energy imports to the EU, and the tools for enforcing them”.

“Europe will lead the way, but we cannot do this alone," commissioner Simson said.

Executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund in Europe, Jill Duggan, said in response: “As the largest importer of internationally traded gas, the EU has a special responsibility to take on methane emissions. We believe that a swift introduction of gas standards is essential to energy system integration and achieving the goals of the Green Deal, and we stand ready to assist the Commission in its investigations of how this could be done.”

Harsher criticism, however, came from the European Environmental Bureau, a network of over 143 environmental citizens’ organisations based in more than 30 countries.

“Tackling emissions from the energy sector is important, but in itself not enough, as it leaves over 80% of methane emissions unaddressed,” said senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, Margherita Tolotto.

She pointed out that the biggest oil and gas companies have already autonomously set their own methane reduction target.

Tolotto urged the Commission in a comment for European media network Euractiv to work on cutting agricultural methane, which she said, “accounts for over half of all methane emissions”.

Improving measurement and reporting

Nevertheless, one of the priorities under the strategy is to improve measurement and reporting of methane emissions.

The level of monitoring currently varies between sectors and member states and across the international community.

In addition to EU-level measures to step up measurement, verification and reporting standards, the Commission will support the establishment of an international methane emission observatory in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the IEA, it said.

The EU's Copernicus satellite programme will also improve surveillance and help to detect global super-emitters and identify major methane leaks.

On Tuesday, data analytics company Kayrros said recent analysis of satellite imagery shows that the number of methane emissions “hot spots” in oil and gas basins over the first eight months of 2020 was about 32% greater than in the same period last year.

The increase “is thought to reflect the impact of changing operational practices with oil and gas operators in light of the global coronavirus pandemic and adjusted activity surrounding pipelines”, Kayrros said.