Lax UK government regulations are allowing oil and gas firms operating in the North Sea to pump out a coal power plant's worth of emissions every year through flaring and venting, Greenpeace has claimed in a new investigation published today.
Official figures obtained by the campaign group's Unearthed investigations unit show the flaring and venting methane in the North Sea released nearly 20 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent between 2015 and 2019, prompting calls for a ban on the practice.
Greenpeace claimed the UK was fifty years behind Norway on the issue, which it said banned non-emergency flaring in the 1970s. It has also reiterated calls for the UK government to cease issuing new oil and gas licenses, and to instead accelerate the transition to renewables, which it argues can sustain the economy while supporting North Sea workers and communities.
"The government's failure to stop companies flaring and venting a coal plant's worth of carbon is disgraceful," said Mel Evans, a senior oil campaigner at Greenpeace UK. "To stand any chance of meeting our climate targets we need strong government action to regulate this industry and secure a safe and fair phaseout of oil and gas that supports workers and communities. The government must stop licensing new oil, and start rolling out offshore wind at scale, while supporting offshore workers to transition to jobs in decommissioning and renewables."
Flaring and venting involves deliberately burning off gas produced together with oil from reservoirs. This can be done for safety reasons, but Greenpeace claims that it is more often carried out to save money by getting rid of gas considered unprofitable to transport back to shore.
While Norway banned non-emergency flaring in 1972, in the UK restrictions set by the Oil and Gas Authority only require companies to reduce by as much as is "reasonable". The rate of flaring on the UK continental shelf is consequently 11 times higher than in Norway and twice the North Sea average, Greenpeace's investigation found.
Labour's Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband joined the green group's calls for a ban on non-emergency flaring "and to stop turning a blind eye to this problem".
"It is frankly embarrassing the UK's flaring activity is twice the North Sea average, and undermines our international credibility as hosts of COP26," he said. "It's yet another example where the hot air from the government about the climate emergency is not matched by real action, just like them approving a new coal mine, financing fossil fuel projects overseas and the fiasco of their botched green homes grant."
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said it was "working to ensure this practice is eliminated as soon as possible".
"As set out in our recently published Energy White Paper, the UK has signed up to the World Bank's plan to eliminate routine flaring no later than 2030," BEIS said in a statement. "We are also working to ensure the extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea has a net zero contribution to emissions by 2050."
The Greenpeace investigation also identified the oil and gas firms primarily responsible for the venting and flaring. Since 2015 - when oil majors Shell, BP, Repsol and Total promised to curb their emissions as part of their commitment to the Paris Agreement - venting and flaring emissions from these firms' North Sea operations has in fact increased. it found.
Together with UK independent oil and gas firm EnQuest, Shell, BP, Total and Repsol accounted for 43 per cent of the total emissions from burning-off, or directly releasing, natural gas into the atmosphere during this period, Greenpeace found. It estimated that the combined emissions from the venting and flaring conducted by BP and Shell between 2015 and 2019 would be equivalent to five million people flying from London to New York and back.
However, responding to the investigation, a Shell spokesperson emphasised that "minimising venting and flaring matters to us and we are working hard to tackle this important issue". "Every year we publish the overall emissions from our UK upstream business, which includes gas we vent or flare," the firm said in a statement. "Between 2015 and 2019 we achieved a 19 per cent reduction in these overall emissions, and we continue to invest in abatement projects."
Competitor BP also stated its commitment to tackling the issue, saying that it is "working to achieve zero routine flaring from our global operations by 2030."
"Last year, we introduced flare gas recovery technology on our Glen Lyon and Clair Ridge installations in the North Sea, resulting in zero routine flaring on those assets and contributing to a near-45 per cent reduction in flaring across our North Sea operations in 2020 compared to 2019. Similar technology is planned for our Clair Phase One and ETAP assets. Beyond this we are pursuing options to ultimately power our North Sea installations using clean energy from shore," a spokesperson for the British energy giant said.
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