The EU has struck a deal that will force the fossil fuel industry to rein in dangerous methane pollution.
Under the proposed law, the first of its kind, coal, oil and gas companies would be required to report their methane emissions and take steps to avoid them. The measures include finding and fixing leaks, and limiting wasteful practices such as venting and flaring gas by 2027.
Jutta Paulus, a German MEP with the Green grouping who worked on the proposal, said: “Finally, the EU tackles the second most important greenhouse gas with ambitious measures. Less methane emissions mean more climate protection and more energy sovereignty.”
Methane has more than 80 times the global heating power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time span but does not last as long in the atmosphere. Cutting methane emissions is seen as a cheap and easy way to stop extreme weather growing more violent in the short-term.
The new EU rules, which were agreed on Wednesday by the European parliament and European Council, mean fossil fuel companies must try to repair leaks no more than five days after finding them, and fully fix them within a month. By the end of next year, operators will have to survey their existing sites and submit action plans to find and fix methane leaks.
The rules will also tackle imported fuels, which experts say could raise the bar for fossil fuel companies around the world. Analysis by the environmental nonprofit organisation Clean Air Task Force last month found global methane emissions from oil and gas could decrease by 30% if foreign suppliers were held to the same standards as domestic ones.
Brandon Locke, a methane expert at the Clean Air Task Force, said: “Considering the prospect of an import standard was nothing more than a dream a year ago, this outcome is a major step forward. While we preferred a faster timeline to reduce emissions before 2030, this agreement will nonetheless go a long way to dramatically cut global methane pollution.”
Methane, which is responsible for about one-third of global heating since the Industrial Revolution, seeps into the air from fossil fuel infrastructure, farms and landfills. The International Energy Agency has found that more than 75% of methane emissions from oil and gas operations and half of emissions from coal can be abated with existing technology, often at low cost.
The campaign group Climate Action Network (Can) welcomed the monitoring and reporting measures in the EU’s new rules but said “the biggest loophole” was the timing. The European Commission will be tasked with determining a methodology for the maximum intensity of methane emissions by 2027, and the EU will apply it to imports by 2030.
Esther Bollendorff, a gas expert at Can Europe, said: “Applying a methane intensity target only three years after entry into force of this regulation is far too little, too late, as methane emissions from producers outside the EU would risk remaining dangerously high up to 2030.”
Under the new rules, EU member states will have to set up a public inventory of coalmines that have been closed or abandoned in the last 70 years and measure the methane leaking from them. Operators will also have to phase out venting and flaring in mines that are still operational. Such practices will be banned in mines that have been shut down from 2030.
Sabina Assan, a methane analyst at the clean energy thinktank Ember, said: “The regulation is one of the first of its kind for coalmines, and a massive leap forward in terms of monitoring, reporting and mitigation of methane from underground and abandoned mines. Even so, the requirements for mitigation are not particularly ambitious.”
Policymakers have started to pay more attention to methane emissions, which have been unregulated in much of the world. Since the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow two years ago, 149 countries and the EU have joined a pledge to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.
China, which did not sign the pledge, published a methane action plan last week that did not include an overall target or date. On Tuesday, the US and China said in a joint statement they would include methane reduction targets in their next climate action plans.
The Cop28 climate summit opens in the United Arab Emirates in just over two weeks’ time.
Flavia Sollazzo, an energy expert at the US-based nonprofit group Environmental Defense Fund, said: “This is a very clear message from the EU and particularly ahead of Cop28 – that climate responsibility doesn’t stop at its borders. And that as the world’s largest buyer of natural gas, it is prepared to use its influence to help drive global methane emission reduction.”
The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers said it was waiting for the full text of the agreement but noted what it described as some “problematic provisions” in the announcement. These included restrictions on technology such as drones to monitor methane emissions and a requirement to quantify subsea emissions, which it said was not technologically feasible today.
It said: “Our sector remains supportive of a proportionate, efficient and implementable EU methane regulation. Based on what we have gathered so far on the agreement, it seems to be a mixed bag and there are a lot of unknowns left to clarify.”
It added that the rules may have broader consequences for the oil and gas sector, such as shutdowns or forced exposure to penalties for rules with which it cannot comply: “This is far from ideal from a security of supply and competitiveness perspective, even more so in the current context.”