Researchers have discovered significant emissions of methane, the powerful and invisible greenhouse gas, at onshore oil sites across England.
The emissions were detected earlier this month by Clean Air Task Force (CATF), an international climate NGO. It used infra red imaging cameras to document the emissions on visits to onshore oil sites across seven counties.
The results, published today, just over a week before the start of critical Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, revealed methane emissions at 14 of the 17 sites visited.
Methane accounts for at least a quarter of global warming since pre-industrial times and levels in the atmosphere are rising faster than ever. It has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide in the short-term, so reducing methane is critical to slowing climate change.
The sites where emissions were recorded were operated by IGas, Egdon Resources, Horse Hill Developments Limited and Perenco, some of the biggest names in the UK onshore industry.
Some of these sites were among the most recent to go into production onshore in the UK. Others had inactive wells and were no longer producing oil.
Methane, which is sensitive to infrared light, was detected coming from vent pipes and stacks, hoses, pipes, pumps, valves, separator tanks, tank hatches and, in one case, the well head itself.
CATF called on the UK government, the Cop26 host, to turn promises on methane emissions reductions into action as soon as possible. “True climate leadership is achieved by actions, not words”, it said.
Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency said there must be rapid cuts to methane emissions at oil and gas sites to meet climate targets.
This week the European Parliament approved a strategy to reduce methane emissions and called for improved leak detection at oil and gas sites.
The UK onshore industry has said it “takes great care to avoid flaring and venting natural gas [methane] wherever possible”. Its trade body, UK Onshore Oil & Gas (UKOOG), says on its website:
“it is in the best interests of operators to be as efficient as possible so that they can deliver as much natural gas as possible to their customers.”
But according to the CATF findings, at least 10 of the sites visited this month were using cold venting techniques and had been permitted by regulators to release all gas associated with oil production.
The organisation found significant methane plumes at Larkwhistle Farm, Glentworth 1, Horndean X, Beckingham 1, all operated by IGas.
There was significant venting at Perenco’s Kimmeridge site, the oldest continuously producing oil well in the UK. DrillOrDrop reported more than three years ago that this well was legally releasing hundreds of tonnes of methane a year into the atmosphere. At the time, the Environment Agency told us many existing sites in England were venting gases produced during oil extraction.
James Turitto, the super pollutants campaign manager at CATF, recorded the footage. He said he had filmed emissions at more than 250 European sites and defined significant emissions as in the top 20%.
“Considering that cutting methane pollution is our best bet to avoid significant warming in the next 20 years, it’s spectacular how much natural gas is being released into the atmosphere. In the middle of a gas crisis, it shows these companies have little regard for either the cost to the climate or costs to British citizens.”
What was recorded where?
Beckingham 1, Nottinghamshire (IGas): Significant emissions from two vent pipes on a separator and high concentrations of methane downwind
Beckingham 5, Nottinghamshire (IGas): Fairly large emissions from the wellhead
Beckingham 8, Nottinghamshire (IGas): Methane emissions apparently from pipe infrastructure on the side of the well pad – unable to visualise
Beckingham 41, Nottinghamshire (IGas): Emissions from the hydraulic pump of an inactive well
Folly Farm, Hampshire (IGas): Small but continuous source of methane emission
Glentworth 1, Lincolnshire (IGas): Four sources of methane and other emissions, from pressure release valves of the separators. There was also a small leak from one of the wellheads
Glentworth East, Lincolnshire (IGas): Significant methane emissions from the central relief vent and emissions from the separator tank
Horndean B, Hampshire (IGas): Significant methane emissions from central relief vent and emissions from a separator tank
Horndean X, Hampshire (IGas): Significant emissions from a vent stack
Horse Hill, Surrey (Horse Hill Developments Limited): Five sources of methane and other gases from three separator tanks, connection hose and unlit flare at one of England’s newest production sites
Kimmeridge, Dorset (Perenco): Significant methane emissions from two vents on the separators
Larkwhistle Farm, Hampshire (IGas): Significant venting of methane and other gases from the central stack and all six separator tanks
Singleton, West Sussex (IGas): Four sources of methane and other gases from closed tank hatches on the separator tanks
Wressle, North Lincolnshire (Egdon Resources): Emissions from at least one separator tank at one of England’s newest production sites but the researchers were asked to leave before they could fully document the source
The sites where no emissions were recorded did not necessarily have no emissions. They were often highly secure or surrounded by trees and difficult to get close to, CATF said.
DrillOrDrop invited all the site operators to comment, along with the industry organisation, UK Onshore Oil & Gas (UKOOG), and the Environment Agency, which regulates emissions from oil and gas sites in England. Only Perenco and Horse Hill Developments Limited responded.
A Perenco spokesperson said:
“We are operating the Kimmeridge site within all regulatory permits and consents, and report the monitored emissions every six months.
“Perenco is committed to reducing emissions and is currently in the process to decrease the venting of gas significantly from the Kimmeridge site.
“A project is well underway to recover, compress and export gas to a third party facility and construction will be completed in 2022.”
Horse Hill Developments Ltd said in a statment:
“Horse Hill Developments Ltd operates Horse Hill in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, in accordance with its regulatory permits and consents.
“The site is regulated by Surrey County Council, Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and Oil & Gas Authority, who make frequent inspection visits to the site and respond to any complaints from the public that they receive.
“We note that an EA report released this week states clearly that the use of optical camera assessment often results in ‘high expanded uncertainties’, saying the cameras cannot detect the difference between different gases. Therefore, the risk of misinterpretation renders this CATF report questionable.
“The inadequacies of the methodology used by CATF are illustrated by the fact that the report does not indicate how much methane has been released. We would also like to point out that we have not been allowed sight of this report.
“HHDL will always investigate any operational and environmental matters and implement any necessary regulatory actions where appropriate, but we prefer to respond to accurately obtained data using robust scientific methods.”
CATF said it used a FLIR GF320 camera, the industry standard in identifying emissions, leaks and events at oil and gas sites. The organisation said the equipment had been calibrated and independently tested to detect and visualise the presence of at least 20 gases. It is primarily a qualitative tool; it cannot quantify emissions.
CATF also said it used a methane gas analyzer to confirm the presence of high concentrations of methane at some sites.
James Turitto is a certified ITC Level 1 Infrared thermographer. His previous footage has been published by Reuters, Bloomberg, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, La Repubblica, RAI, ANSA, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, among many others.
CATF said of HHDL’s statement:
“No OGI [optical gas imaging] camera can indicate exact volumes of methane emissions, so any suggestion that the footage CATF should be doing so is irrelevant. What CATF’s footage shows is that best practices are not being upheld. This is by no means an indictment of the Horse Hill operator – rather, it is a pattern we observe for all oil and gas operations that we have investigated. Self-regulation is an unsuccessful route to the reduction of methane pollution, so it is past time for policymakers to step in.”
The research, carried out from 4-22 October 2021, also found significant methane emissions at National Grid gas transmission compressor stations in Chelmsford and Kings Lynn. They were potentially super-emitters and were some of the largest the organisation had seen after visits to more than 200 sites in 12 countries.
CATF said it would put videos from the UK filming on its website.
The European Union and the US agreed in September 2021 to cut global methane emissions by 30% by 2030. This global methane pledge will be launched at the Cop26 climate talks.
Jonathan Banks, international director, super pollutants, at Clean Air Task Force, said:
“The UK has an opportunity to become a world leader in cutting methane pollution. They have helped spearhead the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 and are making the right noises on tackling the biggest low-hanging fruit in climate policy. But these images show that promises must be turned into action as soon as possible. True climate leadership is achieved by actions, not words.”
CATF said it saw an opportunity to help governments around the world converge around the need to address methane emissions.
It has been collecting evidence of methane emissions from oil and gas facilities across Europe:
“With a major announcement on methane just around the corner at COP26, uncovering evidence of methane pollution in the UK and across Europe is designed to drive action from policymakers sooner rather than later.”
The organisation said there were low-cost technologies and practices that would reduce emissions:
“The oil and gas industry is the largest industrial source of methane emissions, almost all of which could be solved at negative to marginal costs given the proper incentives.
“The EU (plus Norway and Great Britain) represents the world’s 7th highest oil and gas methane polluter and is also the world’s largest importer of natural gas and one of the top importers of oil.
“Through carefully constructed methane policies, Europe could cut its domestic methane footprint and also issue standards with incentives and verification approaches for imported gas to reduce emissions from key suppliers— Russia, Norway, Algeria, Qatar, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and others. “
This week, the Environment Agency (EA) published a report on techniques for quantifying methane emissions at onshore oil and gas sites, unlike the qualitative work done by CATF .
On optical gas imaging (OGI), the EA said:
“The potential use of OGI to determine whole-site emissions would require a detailed campaign to measure all components or functional elements or sampling of components and extrapolation to the whole site. This would lead to high expanded uncertainties in whole-site methane emission rates.”
It also concluded there was high uncertainty with other technique: air quality towers, solar occulation flux (SOF), mobile measurement and satellite.