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At COP28 meeting, oil companies pledge to combat methane; Environmentalists call it a 'smokescreen'

Associated Press Sunday, 3 December 2023, 06:47 Last update: about 4 months ago

Fifty oil companies representing nearly half of global production have pledged to reach near-zero methane emissions and end routine flaring in their operations by 2030, the president of this year's United Nations climate talks said Saturday, a move that environmental groups called a “smokescreen."

Methane emissions are a significant contributor to global warming, so sharply reducing them could help slow temperature rise. If the companies carry out their pledges, it could trim one-tenth of a degree Celsius (0.18 degrees Fahrenheit) from future warming, a prominent climate scientist calculated and told The Associated Press. That is about how much the Earth is currently warming every five years.

The announcement by Sultan al-Jaber, president of the climate summit known as COP28 and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., comes as he and others have insisted his background would allow him to bring oil companies to the negotiating table. Al-Jaber has maintained that having the industry's buy-in is crucial to drastically slashing the world’s greenhouse emissions by nearly half in seven years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times.

Signing on to the pledge were major national oil companies such as Saudi Aramco, Brazil's Petrobras and Sonangol, from Angola, and multi-nationals like Shell, TotalEnergies and BP.

“The world does not work without energy,” said al-Jaber, speaking in a session on the oil industry. “Yet the world will break down if we do not fix energies we use today, mitigate their emissions at a gigaton scale, and rapidly transition to zero carbon alternatives.”

As if anticipating critiques, al-Jaber added: “Is it enough? Hear me out, please. No, it's not enough. I say with full passion and conviction, I know that much more can be done.”

For months leading up to COP28, there was speculation of action on methane. Not only do methane leaks, along with flaring, which is burning of excess methane, and venting of the gas, all contribute to climate change, but these problems can largely be solved with current technologies and changes to operations. Indeed, oil and gas companies could have taken such measures years ago but largely have not, instead focusing more on expanding production than focusing on the byproduct of it.

In that way, the methane deal represented a potentially significant contribution to combatting climate change that also largely maintained the status quo for the oil and gas industry. Many environmental groups were quick to criticize it.

The pledge is a “smokescreen to hide the reality that we need to phase out oil, gas and coal,” said a letter signed by more than 300 civil society groups.

Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said “the commitments to cut methane are significant, but they address the symptom, not the source.”

But Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said Saturday’s deal “could be the single most impactful day of announcements from any COP in my 30 years at the Environmental Defense Fund.”

Methane has caused about half of the world’s warming since pre-industrial times, al-Jaber said, promoting the deal as significant. However, methane escaping from oil and gas drilling is only about 23% of the world’s methane emissions, with agriculture and waste being bigger culprits, said Climate Analytics CEO Bill Hare, the climate scientist who calculated the proposal would trim a tenth of a degree from future warming.

“It would be a significant, but not a fundamental contribution" to making sure average temperatures don't rise beyond 1.5 degrees, Hare said. To keep within that limit, the world needs to cut carbon dioxide about 40% and methane by about 60% by 2030, he said.

Methane can be released at several points along the operation of an oil and gas company, from fracking to when natural gas is produced, transported or stored. Over a shorter period, it’s 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. However, methane stays in the air only a couple decades — unlike thousands of years for carbon dioxide — so reducing methane faster is “low-hanging fruit” because it's easier and changes future warming more, al-Jaber said.

Marcelo Mena, CEO of Global Methane Hub, an alliance of philanthropies and organizations focused on reducing methane emissions, said that having near-zero methane emission commitments should not be seen as delaying a phase out of fossil fuels, as some environmental groups claimed.

“We wouldn’t let oil companies leak into the ocean until phase out, so why would we let them leak out methane to super charge climate change?” said Mena, a former environment minister in Chile.

Still, Mena said that self-reporting didn't go far enough to push oil and gas companies to make changes. Instead, he said putting a price on pollution, or companies finding themselves shut out of markets that require high standards with leaks, would force change.

Stricter regulations are beginning to take hold. On Saturday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule aimed at reducing methane emissions and other harmful air pollutants generated by the oil and gas industry. It targets emissions from existing oil and gas wells nationwide. Previous EPA regulations only focused on new wells. It also regulates smaller wells that will be required to find and plug methane leaks.

The United States will now have “the strongest methane regulations in the world,” White House climate adviser John Podesta told the AP.

Earlier this year, European Union negotiators reached a deal to reduce methane emissions from the energy industry across the 27-member bloc. The agreement bans routine venting and flaring, and mandates strict reporting. By 2027, it will expand those norms to oil and gas exporters outside the bloc.

Saturday's announcement did not address the oil and natural gas being burned off by the end users, so-called Scope 3 emissions, which can be motorists in their cars or plants powering cities. In his speech, al-Jaber said oil and gas companies needed to do more to research solutions to Scope 3 emissions.

The Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter is backed by both the United Arab Emirates and neighboring Saudi Arabia, two OPEC heavyweights. Saudi Arabia’s vast oil resources, located close to the surface of its desert expanse, makes it one of the world’s least expensive places to produce crude. Both Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC and Aramco, the world’s third-most-valuable company, have signed onto the pledge.

Separately, organizers said more than 100 countries have signed onto a pledge to triple the world’s installed renewable energy capacity by 2030, something pledged in September by leaders of the so-called Group of 20. Their countries emit 80% of all planet-warming gases.

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