Investigation: Beauty spot oil well releases hundreds of tonnes of methane into the atmosphere

A small oil well on the world heritage coast in Dorset is legally allowed to emit hundreds of tonnes of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, annually direct into the atmosphere.

And it is apparently not alone. According to the Environment Agency, “many” existing conventional oil-producing sites in England are also venting gases produced during extraction.

The Environment Agency has estimated that the Dorset well, operated by Perenco from the cliff-top at Kimmeridge Bay, released nearly 300 tonnes of methane in 2017.

Over its life, the well could have emitted the equivalent of more than a million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

This appears to contradict assurances that the onshore industry takes great care to avoid venting gases and it raises questions about the strength of UK oil and gas regulations.

“Venting by design”

The Kimmeridge well has an old-fashioned nodding-donkey style beam pump and has been operating since the 1960s.

The site is in the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Perenco, the operator, also runs the nearby Wytch Farm oil field, the largest onshore oil field in western Europe. Wytch Farm is regularly used by the industry as an illustration of how oil production can successfully co-exist with beautiful places and high house prices.

Methane venting at Kimmeridge has been investigated by Stuart Lane, a campaigner and researcher in Dorset, following a tip-off. He said:

“I was told by a reliable source that the Kimmeridge well was cold venting methane.

“After some back and forth with the Environment Agency, it became clear that not only was the well cold venting methane, it was doing so by design.

“Unlike accounts that I was aware of in the United States and Australia, where methane is leaking from poorly managed fracking wells, the Kimmeridge well is not leaking. It isn’t attempting to capture the gas that accompanies the oil upon extraction. Neither does the site combust it and flare it off as carbon dioxide.”

Information request

DrillOrDrop made a Freedom of Information request to the Environment Agency (EA) about the emissions from the Kimmeridge well. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, trapping much more heat over 100 years than carbon dioxide.

The EA confirmed to us what it had told Mr Lane.

  • The Kimmeridge well has a permitted release point for methane
  • The volume of methane released to the atmosphere in 2017 was 284 tonnes
  • This is an estimate based on the production level of crude oil.

The EA told us:

“The crude oil production is measured, and then a gas-to-oil ratio is applied to estimate emissions. The gas within the oil is periodically measured to confirm the accuracy of the estimation.”

The EA told Mr Lane that the well produced 3,179 tonnes of crude oil in 2017 and that this volume was used to calculate the level of methane.

“Many sites are venting gases to atmosphere”

Under environmental permitting regulations, a site operator must minimise emissions. We asked the EA how Perenco, the operator of the Kimmeridge well, could comply with the regulations when it was releasing this much methane.

In its reply, the EA suggested that the Kimmeridge well was not alone.

“We are aware that many of the existing conventional oil producing well sites are currently venting ‘associated gases’ to atmosphere as a point source emission.”

A “point source emission” is the term used for the release of emissions from a particular location at an oil or gas site.

The EA said these sites, like Kimmeridge, were operating under old-style environmental permits. DrillOrDrop has previously reported that these permits have not required onshore oil and gas sites to carry out groundwater monitoring or submit records of water reinjection, formation stimulation or the use of acid.

The EA said operators of oil production sites were expected to submit proposals to use the best available technique for handling what are known as “associated gases” produced alongside the oil. But at Kimmeridge the EA said:

“Other abatement methods have been trialled, but at present all methane is released through the permitted release point.”

We asked whether methane emissions were monitored using optical imaging cameras. The EA replied:

“Optical Imaging cameras are in the process of being trialled but have not been used to date at Kimmeridge.”

We asked what techniques had been used to try to abate methane releases at the well. The EA replied:

“Over the years a number of methods have been technically assessed. A significant investment was also made to install a micro turbine to convert the gas to electricity. It was found that the flow of gas was neither consistent, or sufficient enough to support the turbine and this approach has been abandoned. The operator is required to review new technologies on an annual basis.”

“How could a regulatory system allow this to happen?”

Researcher Stuart Lane said:

 “I am concerned how the regulatory system allowed this to happen. I am also concerned with how Perenco could allow this, given that it trades upon a reputation for safety and best practice. Perenco certainly doesn’t lack the funds. The company’s operations are very lucrative, they are currently offering £1.7 million for environmental projects in the area near its core operations at Wytch Farm, just across the hills from the Kimmeridge well.

“It isn’t a recent problem that is an unfortunate blip. The well has been operating since 1961.

“What is more, there are other wells out there also regulated under the same type of permit.”

The Environment Agency told DrillOrDrop earlier this year that 38 onshore oil and gas sites were still operating under the old-style permits. We have asked which of these sites are also allowed to vent methane.

Calculating the carbon footprint of Kimmeridge

Mr Lane wanted to get an idea of the level of methane emitted by the Kimmeridge well over its lifetime. Using publicly-available data , he estimated that the carbon footprint, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), is well over a million tonnes (see The calculation).

To put that in perspective, he said the carbon footprint for a UK citizen is about 10 tonnes a year. Based on these figures, the Kimmeridge well, over its life, has produced as much CO2e as 112,500 people do in a year. The population of Poole, the closest large town to the well, is about 150,000 people.

The Calculation

Details of peer-reviewed paper: Gluyas, J. G., Evans, I. J. and Richards, D., 2003. The Kimmeridge Bay Oilfield, Dorset, UK Onshore [Periodical]. GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY, LONDON

Mr Lane said:

“The regulatory system appears to be permitting gross levels of pollution that fly in that face of legally binding climate change commitments including the 2008 Climate Change Act.

“It is clear the mitigation options have been investigated but the most obvious and simplest approach in my opinion would be to close any well that is not designed to avoid methane emissions.

“This one small well appears to have done enormous damage and exposes wider concerns. We have a regulatory system that is prepared to approve massive levels of pollution and an industry that will seemingly operate to the minimum standards that regulations impose, however low. The Kimmeridge well raises questions about the regulation and operation of other well sites around the country.

“This also raises serious questions about the “Gold Standard” regulatory system that is being promoted as the impenetrable firewall to defend us and our environmental from any additional dangers posed by fracking.

“At a time when the government is seeking unprecedented levels of trust and centralisation regarding the process to approve new wells, this example demonstrates that local people with concerns about local installations are important in the planning process. Sometimes they are the ones that ask the overlooked questions and hold institutions to account.”

Mr Lane has launched a petition to close onshore wells that are cold venting methane. Link here

Company response

DrillOrDrop invited Perenco to comment on emissions from the Kimmeridge well. We also asked if the company’s Wytch Farm had a permitted release point for methane.

Its public relations company replied:

“I have just spoken to the team and Perenco would like to decline to comment please.”

Updating regulations

The Environment Agency is currently updating permits issued before October 2013 for onshore oil and gas sites.

Under a new-style permit, operators would be required to produce a plan for using or disposing of associated gases.

The EA said:

“The plan must contain detailed consideration of all available options for the beneficial utilisation of all of the available gas from their activities.

“Where such utilisation is not feasible, the plan must consider in detail all available options, both combustion and non-combustion based, for the disposal or abatement/mitigation of waste gas so as to minimise its environmental impacts as far as available techniques allow.”

The re-permitting programme began in 2016 and is still underway. At Kimmeridge, the EA said the application was made on 11 July 2017. It added:

“the permit application is currently in the process of being determined and we expect to have a decision late 2018.”

52 replies »

  1. We just need to install a giant wind turbine in front of Martin Collyer although it might have to be sited some distance away to prevent overload.

  2. I am looking to write a thesis on the subject of methane release and reducing oil and gas companies carbon footprint, could anyone advise me on who I should contact please?

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