Methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector fell by an estimated 10% in 2020, mainly because of production curtailments in response to the Covid-19 crisis, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Methane Tracker 2021 report published Monday.

methane emissions

Oil and gas operations emitted more than 70 million tons of methane into the atmosphere last year, which is broadly equivalent to the total energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the entire European Union, researchers said.

The analysis shows that “a large part of the drop in methane emissions in 2020 occurred not because companies were taking more care to avoid methane leaks from their operations, but simply because they were producing less oil and gas,” researchers said. “As such, there is clearly a risk that this downward trend will be reversed by an increase in production to fuel a rebound in global economic activity.”

The global energy watchdog is urging producers, governments and regulators to take more decisive action to curb emissions of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas and the main component of natural gas.

“The 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. “There is no good reason to allow these harmful leaks to continue, and there is every reason for responsible operators to ensure that they are addressed.”

Said Birol, “Alongside ambitious efforts to decarbonize our economies, early action on methane emissions will be critical for avoiding the worst effects of climate change. There has never been a greater sense of urgency about this issue than there is today.”

Researchers noted that curbing methane emissions is “very cost-effective for oil and gas companies. Unlike CO2, there is already a price for methane everywhere in the world — the price of natural gas.

“This means the costs of improving operations or making repairs to prevent leaks can often be paid for by the value of the additional gas that is brought to market.”

To clamp down on methane leakage, a new regulatory roadmap has been published for policymakers, offering “a step-by-step guide for anyone trying to develop or update regulation on methane,” IEA noted.

“We believe that industry must act visibly and quickly,” Birol said.“But there is also a strong role for government policies to incentivize early action by companies, push for transparency and improvements in performance, and support innovation in getting results.”

The case for taking action on methane “is not just environmental or reputational,” the IEA team said. “There are increasing signs that consumers are starting to look carefully at the emissions profile of different sources of gas when making decisions on what to buy. 

“A gas producer without a credible story on methane abatement is also one that is taking commercial risks.”

The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a group of oil and gas companies committed to tackling methane emissions, responded positively to the Methane Tracker report.

“OGCI fully supports the IEA’s efforts to increase data transparency and welcomes the regulatory roadmap, both of which are critical for mitigating methane emissions,” said the group’s strategy and policy director, Julien Perez. “OGCI’s member companies have made it a top priority to reduce methane emissions to near zero, and through their membership in OGCI support the implementation of regulations specifically tackling methane emissions reduction.”

The Biden administration is expected to strengthen and reinstate Obama-era methane controls for the energy sector that were rolled back by the Trump administration. Biden’s “Build Back Better” climate agenda envisions net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. economy by 2050.