Oil companies and policymakers must take strong action to prevent a rebound in methane emissions as the global economy recovers from the Covid-19 crisis, according to a study.

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Emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas fell by an estimated 10% in 2020 as energy demand and oil and gas production contracted, but they could rebound quickly without immediate steps by companies, regulators and lawmakers, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in an update to its methane tracker.

Oil and gas operations produced more than 70 million tonnes of methane emissions last year — second only to agriculture, which accounts for about 25% of all man-made emissions, the IEA said.

The Paris-based agency noted that, while part of the reduction was due to companies’ efforts to trim emissions, the drop in production due to lower demand was the overwhelming factor, making a return to previous emissions levels likely as demand picks up.

“The immediate task now for the oil and gas industry is to make sure that there is no resurgence in methane emissions, even as the world economy recovers, and that 2019 becomes their historical peak,” said IEA executive director Fatih Birol.

“Alongside ambitious efforts to decarbonise our economies, early action on methane emissions will be critical for avoiding the worst effects of climate change.”

The IEA released what it called “a regulatory roadmap and toolkit” for companies and policymakers drawing on analysis of how more than 50 jurisdictions around the world have tackled methane emissions through regulations.

COP26 meeting

Birol tied the release of the guidelines to next November’s COP26 meeting, when nations will lay out new or updated pledges on reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Methane is considered far more damaging in the short term and a relatively easy problem for producers to address by improving operations and fixing leaks, the IEA said.

The drop in global methane emissions was not distributed evenly. Falls in some regions were partly offset by increases elsewhere, according to Kayrros, a Paris-based data analytics company that provides statistics for the IEA methane tracker.

Methane emissions were lower in Kuwait, Iraq, Turkmenistan and the US, but grew in Kazakhstan, Russia and Algeria.

The US saw significant decreases in emissions because of a decline in well completion activity due to plunging oil prices and an accompanying increase in takeaway capacity such as the Gulf Coast Express Pipeline, Kayrros said.

However, emissions in Russia increased by an estimated 32%, despite lower energy consumption, according to the company, which uses satellite data to compile statistics on oil and gas producing regions.

The Oil & Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) group of major producers said it “fully supports the IEA’s efforts to increase data transparency and welcomes the regulatory roadmap, both of which are critical for mitigating methane emissions”.

OGCI strategy and policy director Julien Perez said member companies “have made it a top priority to reduce methane emissions to near zero”.