The British government is allowing oil companies to release the equivalent of a coal power station’s worth of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year by burning off or dumping unwanted natural gas into the atmosphere, Unearthed can reveal.
The practice – severely restricted in neighbouring Norway – is sometimes carried out for safety reasons but is more often an attempt to save money by getting rid of gas considered unprofitable to transport back to shore.
Official documents obtained by Unearthed detail, for the first time, the companies most responsible for the massive emissions emanating from oil and gas facilities in the North Sea between 2015 and 2019, the most recent years for which data is available.
The top emitters include Repsol Sinopec – a joint venture between Spanish and Chinese state-owned oil companies; French oil giant Total; British oil majors Shell and BP, and EnQuest, a UK-registered independent.
The government must ban flaring
Together these companies accounted for 43% of the total emissions from burning-off, or directly releasing, natural gas into the atmosphere during this period – practices known respectively as flaring and venting.
The investigation also found that, since 2015 – when BP, Total and Repsol promised to curb these emissions as part of their commitment to the Paris Agreement – venting and flaring emissions from their North Sea operations actually increased.
In contrast to Norway, which banned ‘non-emergency’ flaring in 1972, the UK does not have strict rules and instead leaves it to the regulator, the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA), to issue consents to vent or flare. The rate of flaring on the UK Continental Shelf is consequently 11 times higher than in Norway and twice the North Sea average, according to the consultancy Capterio.
Despite this gulf in emissions performance, a new strategy published by the OGA last year, setting out how it will help the government to meet its net zero target, committed to reduce emissions from venting and flaring only “as far as reasonable in the circumstances.”
Ed Miliband MP, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, told Unearthed: “The Government must ban flaring, except in dire safety emergencies, and 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.”
“Ministers need to rapidly invest in low-carbon energy through a proper plan for a green economic recovery, supporting the transition to a cleaner energy sector, and crucially securing and creating jobs to tackle the unemployment crisis,” he continued.
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