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NORTH Sea oil and gas firms are “fuelling climate change” by pumping out a coal plant’s worth of emissions each year through flaring and venting, a new investigation has revealed.
The practice – banned in a non-emergency 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, conservation groups say.
Figures obtained through Environmental Information Regulations requests show that almost 20m tonnes of CO2 equivalent were released in the five years to 2019.
For the first time, the worst companies for flaring and venting have been identified with Repsol Sinopec – – a joint venture between Spanish and Chinese state-owned oil companies – French oil giant Total, and UK oil majors Shell, BP and EnQuest in the top five.
Together these companies accounted for 43% of the total emissions from burning-off, or directly releasing, natural gas into the atmosphere during this period.
READ MORE: Environmental officers sent to Mossmorran after unexpected flaring
Figures from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) revealed that up to 13,800 tonnes of CO2 could have been emitted from the Mossmorran chemical plant in Fife during flaring in October alone.
That’s the equivalent to 9,140 people taking a return flight from Glasgow to New York.
The Mossmorran flaring lasted three days from October 4 to 6.
Fife Ethylene Plant operator ExxonMobil said at the time that it was committed to minimising carbon dioxide emissions.
Greenpeace, which carried out the new Unearthed probe have criticised the government’s failure to get emissions under control and its inadequate plans to move away from oil and gas to meet its climate targets and obligations.
The conservation organisation is calling for an end to new oil and gas licensing, shifting instead to a prosperous renewables sector which supports our economy and North Sea workers and communities.
The campaign group is pushing for the government to show climate leadership in the year that the UK hosts global climate talks, COP26, in Glasgow.
Norway banned non-emergency flaring in 1972, but in the UK restrictions on flaring and venting set by the Oil and Gas Authority are weak, says the study.
The OGA strategy publishedlast year, setting out how it will help the government to meet its net zero target, committed reduce emissions from venting and flaring only “as far as os reasonable in the circumstances.”
The rate of flaring on the UK Continental Shelf is consequently 11 times higher than in Norway and twice the North Sea average, Greenpeace say.
Ed Miliband MP, Labour’s shadow business secretary said: “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.” Mel Evans, senior oil campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “The government’s failure to stop companies flaring and venting a coal plant’s worth of carbon is disgraceful.
READ MORE: Mossmorran flaring: Over 100 workers stage walkout at Fife plant over safety fears
“Norway tackled this problem in the 1970s, but our government is clearly asleep at the wheel.
“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.”
Louise O’Hara Murray, emissions improvement manager at OGUK said: “We know that there is more work to be done and we’re already in action to ramp up our response as an industry. As one of the first industrial sectors to set out our roadmap to net zero, the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry has committed to clear sector-wide targets to halve all our emissions by the end of this decade before reaching net zero in 2050.
“We’re working with members on a specific action plan to tackle methane emissions which will drive action to reduce routine flaring and venting across the basin. We look forward to publishing this in spring this year as another important milestone for our changing sector.”
BP said it is working to achieve stopping all routine flaring from global operations by 2030.
“Safety issues and unplanned operational events may require the need to flare, but it is always our intent to keep flaring to a minimum,” a spokesman said.
“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% 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.
“In the North Sea we intend to eliminate routine flaring across all of our BP operations by 2027. This is in support of our broader company ambition to become a net zero company by 2050 and reduce emissions from our global operations by 30-35% over the next decade.
“We want to keep improving and appreciate the input from those who challenge us to do better.”
A Shell spokesman said: “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. Between 2015 and 2019 we achieved a 19% reduction in these overall emissions, and we continue to invest in abatement projects.”
A UK Government spokesperson said: “Alongside regulators, we are 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. 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.”