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Carbon Budgets: Methane Flaring

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 9 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of methane flaring on meeting the United Kingdom’s carbon budgets; and what plans they have to ban this practice.

My Lords, the Government recognise that eliminating routine methane flaring is a priority. North Sea flaring has halved in the past four years. We have committed to make every effort to ensure that routine flaring from oil and gas fields ends as soon as possible, ahead of the World Bank’s zero routine flaring by 2030 target. Methane emissions are fully accounted for in the UK’s carbon budgets, and the oil and gas sector is on track to deliver against this target.

My Lords, the figures the Minister has quoted are hotly disputed by the respected journal Energy & Environmental Science. However:

“With natural gas prices at historic highs, gas flaring is an extraordinary waste of economic value … alongside its negative impacts on climate change and human health.”

Those are not my words but the words of the IEA’s recent technology deep dive report into flaring. Why do the Government not just stop this historic madness, follow the Skidmore review recommendation and ban flaring and venting, other than in an emergency situation, as Norway did in 1972?

These are complicated technological and economic matters. If it were as simple as the noble Baroness makes out, we would do it, but we are working to do it as quickly as possible. The figures that I quoted are from a press release from the North Sea Transition Authority that was issued today—the authority must have seen the noble Baroness’s Question. Flaring is down by 50% since 2018. We must not get this out of proportion; of the UK’s methane emissions, only 1.6% are from the oil and gas sector, compared with the likes of the 49% that come from agriculture.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that there is a huge amount of methane leakage from landfill sites? How do the Government propose to deal with the methane escaping from those sources?

My noble friend makes a good point. Some 30% of our emissions are from the waste sector, which is one of the sectors where we are doing our best to try to reduce emissions because the gas is valuable and can be used, and indeed it is trapped on some sites. We have a system of supporting anaerobic digesters to deal with the waste; they can produce green gas that is then fed into the gas main.

My Lords, returning to oil and gas methane emissions, the last time we discussed this at Oral Questions on 22 February I raised the same point that the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan did, that the figures are heavily disputed and academic research suggests that methane releases are five times higher than the UK’s official figures. The Minister said then that the Government would

“make sure that the information and published figures are as accurate as possible”.—[Official Report, 22/2/23; col. 1648.]

What progress has been made since then on ensuring the accuracy and reliability of figures for methane releases from the oil and gas industry?

I have checked figures with officials from the last time the noble Baroness asked me that question, and I am confident in the information that I have been given and the UK statistics. The noble Baroness shakes her head, but the figures are probably more reliable than some of her scientists.

Can my noble friend the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to encourage more use of landfill gas for domestic and commercial energy?

My noble friend makes a good point, and I touched on it in an earlier answer. We want to try to trap as much of this gas as possible because it is a valuable resource. As I mentioned, the green gas support scheme is a system that uses a gas levy to support anaerobic digesters across the country to take some of the waste food and organic matter that can be turned into useful gas that is fed into the gas main.

My Lords, methane flaring accounts for approximately 145 billion cubic metres of gas per year globally, contributing to the overall methane emissions that cause 25% of global heating today. We can dispute the studies; indeed, I shall reference the study in the journal Science that came out last week which found that methane flaring is responsible for five times more methane entering the atmosphere than previously thought. I am quite taken aback by the complacency here. Does it not at least warrant further consideration if studies are disputing the evidence that the Minister has cited today? Bearing that in mind, and given the worries about the recent surge that have been highlighted, what progress is being made on farming and landfill, as has been mentioned? I do not think we have had the detail. When can we expect the Government to produce the latest, much-promised plan to achieve all targets and net zero?

The noble Baroness asked a number of questions there. We can argue about the figures but we can all agree that it is something that we want to eliminate as quickly as possible. We have a target to get rid of all flaring emissions by 2030, as I mentioned in earlier answers, but let us not get this out of proportion. These are 1.6% of our emissions, which we should eliminate as quickly as possible, but, as the noble Baroness mentioned, the bigger sectors to tackle are agriculture and waste, as other noble Lords have mentioned.

My Lords, in the last four months the sky over Hampshire and the Isle of Wight has been lit up twice by huge emergency flaring from the Fawley refinery. What release of methane was involved in these incidents? What steps are being taken to prevent more such episodes?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. I am not familiar with that incident, but I will speak to officials when I get back to the department.

The noble Lord makes a very good point. The finest minds in the Civil Service have been devoted to deciding the acronym for the new department. “Deznez” seems to be the favourite, though I should say that my Secretary of State rightly points out that no one has any idea what all these acronyms stand for so we should use its full title, which is the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

In answer to my noble friend’s Question, the Minister said that there are reasons why this is technically difficult. It would help noble Lords if the Minister could explain what those technical difficulties are. I can understand it when new wells are being tested, but this is established production over the long term. What exactly are the technical difficulties?

I am happy to arrange a briefing with officials for the noble Lord if he would like, but the technical difficulties are, first, technological, in that it requires a lot of new infrastructure and pipework to be installed, and some of the facilities that flare are oil platforms that do not have facilities to pipe the gas to shore. Secondly, there are huge economic costs associated with it; obviously, some of the infrastructure goes back to the 1970s.

My noble friend is dogged in his determination to get tidal on the agenda. I agree with him that we need more renewable energy, and we have allocated a number of CfD contracts to different forms of tidal energy.

My Lords, on a slightly different tack, has the Minister’s department made any assessment yet, or will it do so, of the claims we have recently seen in the press about new technology for carbon capture and storage at sea? Is that likely to be a game-changer or has it been overhyped?

The noble and gallant Lord deserves a longer answer than I have time for. CCUS is emerging technology. We have a huge programme of support and will be making announcements shortly about the track 1 cluster, to use the jargon, of some of the schemes that will be supported. There are a number of innovative schemes around the UK that deserve our backing.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that historically the capture of dangerous gases of this sort has been by our peat bogs? The protection of peat, particularly in the Pennine area, is crucial to this. What steps will the new department take to ensure that we can continue to protect those areas?

The short answer is it is not the responsibility of DESNZ but of Defra in terms of environmental protection, but I will pass on the noble Lord’s comments.

My Lords, the Minister might like to take this opportunity to withdraw the slur that he made in his answer to me against scientists from the Energy Institute at Colorado State University, the department of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, whose work was published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science. Does the Minister agree that that is a reputable source?

People are always quoting various scientists at me, and for one opinion there are others. I am confident in the figures that the UK uses for our emissions.