Methane pollution “pouring out” of Australian gas infrastructure, study finds

Image: Australian Conservation Foundation.

Methane is leaking, or being deliberately released, from gas pipelines and facilities across Queensland and NSW, specialised camera footage from the Clean Air Task Force reveals.

Infrared thermographer Théophile Humann-Guilleminot found 101 leaks and methane venting at 15 of 38 sites visited in New South Wales (NSW), and at 20 of 42 sites visited in Queensland.

At some sites there were multiple emissions points from a single piece of equipment.

Using a FLIR GF320 infrared camera, the methane pollution prevention campaigner found 25 visible leaks on Jemena’s

JGN and Darling Downs pipelines, and 10 leaks and vents from Origin’s coal seam gas wells and Shell/QGC gas-gathering pipelines in Queensland.

Venting, where gas is deliberately released, was found at four of seven Santos coal seam gas wells surveyed in the Pilliga/Bibblewindi forest in NSW, and at the APA-operated compressor station at the Wallumbilla Gas Hub.

Image: Clean Air Task Force. Vent (right top corner) of one of the compressor units at APA Wallumbilla Compressor Station, in Queensland. Compressors are used to push the gas through the pipelines, from production and the consumer, they very often vent- by-design gas during events called blowdown, but also leak from faulty isolation and seals. The gas documented is the same as the one used in households. Photographed 23 June, 2023.
Image: Clean Air Task Force. Vent (right top corner) of one of the compressor units at APA Wallumbilla Compressor Station, in Queensland. Compressors are used to push the gas through the pipelines, from production and the consumer, they very often vent- by-design gas during events called blowdown, but also leak from faulty isolation and seals. Photographed 23 June, 2023.

Humann-Guilleminot says he was shocked by emissions from Origin’s Talinga and Condomine gas field operations in particular, where methane was “pouring out” of equipment, sometimes from several different points.

“I have personally undertaken methane fieldwork in eight countries and filmed at more than 250 fossil fuel sites. Doing this work in Australia was on another level,” he says.

“In times of heated debates on energy cost, seeing all this gas wasted and supercharging climate change is deeply worrying.”

150,000 tonnes a year just from a few sites

The camera only detected the existence of methane gas, validated by Clean Air Task Force researchers in Europe peer reviewing the images, not the amount released.

But a back of the envelope calculation suggested that combined the leaks could be emitting around 150,000 tonnes of methane a year just from the sites they visited, says Australian Conservation Foundation lead investigator Annica Schoo.

Schoo told RenewEconomy they came up with that ballpark figure based a CSIRO study of coal seam gas well leaks that quantified minor leaks as 3 grams per minute.

Work to figure out a more accurate number for gas pipeline and facility leaks and venting will be done, likely with satellite technology.

This study was a followup to a project several years ago by the Australian Conservation Foundation that compared environmental impact statements to actual reported methane emissions, which found a quarter were emitting significantly more of the gas than they originally said they would.

Schoo began looking at how methane emissions were measured and reported, and was shocked to find that incidents, such as a pipeline rupturing and releasing fossil gases into the air until it’s fixed, aren’t reported in national emissions data.

Gas lobby group the APPEA claimed, after the study was released on Tuesday evening, that its members had already found the results were incorrect after “immediately rechecking their facilities” at all 80 sites.

The APPEA also warned the images might actually show heat, water vapour, particulates, carbon dioxide, or a combination.

Schoo says the images were peer reviewed by researchers in Europe, and they are confident that 101 leaks are methane with another 15 under scrutiny.

The APPEA says a 2021 study commissioned by the Australian Gas Industry Trust (AGIT), another gas lobby group, shows the Australian oil and gas sector is actually a very small contributor of methane emissions.

It says methane emissions are a priority for the sector.

Evidence building of widespread methane emissions

Although it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is about 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas.

It’s believed to account for 30 per cent of warming since the industrial revolution, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But as a greenhouse gas, it’s woefully ignored by governments focused on carbon dioxide and emissions from venting and leaks are dramatically under-reported and under-estimated. 

In Australia, methane emissions from coal mines alone are nearly twice as high as what the industry actually reports and fugitive emissions – leaks – make up almost a third of the country’s total methane pollution. 

Schoo says the field trip showed how widespread leaking and venting of methane is and provides new evidence that emissions are much higher than reported. 

“Australia is at the back of the global pack when it comes to methane mitigation, with regulations too weak to stop companies releasing methane freely from their facilities,” she says. 

“The fact is, we just don’t know how much climate-heating methane is leaking from coal and gas in Australia because the regulations are so weak and under-reporting is rife.”

The IEA says to limit warming to 1.5C and meet international net zero goals the world must cut methane emissions by 75 per cent by 2030, much of which can be done by simply plugging the kinds of leaks found by Humann-Guilleminot.

Schoo wants a hold on all new coal and gas approvals while an accurate estimate of coal and gas CO2 and methane emissions is collated, and a plan to reduce them is put in place.

Little government action so far

The federal government signed on to the Global Methane Pledge last year, to cut emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

But to date it has not put any specific targets or policies in place to achieve that, despite methane making up about a quarter of the country’s total emissions output and despite having an opportunity to do so with the Safeguard Mechanism reforms. 

In July, the government opened applications for $8.5 million in grants for research that will reduce methane emissions from coal and gas, and minister for resources Madeleine King said such tech would help Australia’s net zero by 2050 goal – but didn’t mention a 2030 date.

A spokesperson for minister for climate change and energy, Chris Bowen, told RenewEconomy the government was undertaking measures to reduce methane emissions.

“The Albanese government’s reformed Safeguard Mechanism will deliver over 200 million tonnes of emissions reduction to 2030 – the equivalent of taking two-thirds of Australia’s cars off the road,” he said.

“Methane emissions from coal and gas are reported under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act consistent with international accounting rules and the Safeguard reforms include new transparency measures to publish the methane emissions of all covered facilities each year.

“The Government has also referred methane measurement to the Climate Change Authority for consideration in their current review of the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act to consider whether any further improvements can be made.”

Just set some targets

A specific methane reduction target for coal and gas, emissions regulations and price signals, and collaboration globally to build up the Pledge is a good starting point for attacking the methane issue, says a new report by sustainability consultancy Rennie Advisory.

“Evidence from other jurisdictions show that the best results are seen when each of these approaches are used together in a holistic package of works,” noted the report, Methane Emissions Reduction: International policy and technology insights for the Australian fossil fuel sector.

“One alone will not achieve the desired results in the most efficient manner – a combination of targets, with emissions regulations appears to drive the greatest industry action.”

Sector specific targets mean responsibility for methane emissions can’t be deflected onto other industries, such as waste and agriculture.

In terms of specific emissions standards, the report suggests applying benchmarks to new and existing infrastructure and mines such as non-routine flaring and venting targets, requirements to produce methane emissions baselines and report publicly on methane emissions, and demand measurements using modern best-practice techniques.

Using carrots and sticks has also been shown to work, the report says.

The US has put a price on methane in its Inflation Reduction Act, and financial incentives through avoided Safeguard Mechanism compliance costs “would encourage emissions reductions beyond those mandated through prescriptive emissions standards”, it said.

Australia would not be a global leader by taking any of these steps.

Already Canadian fossil fuel states Alberta and British Columbia have methane emission standards on equipment and processes in place, and methane-specific mechanisms in their versions of the Safeguard Mechanism and Emissions Reduction Fund.

The UK is flaring and venting targets, and public disclosure requirements.

China is focused on capturing and using its coal mine methane.

Five years ago methane was still a fringe issue and today some 150 countries have 2030 reduction targets — but not Australia, says Jonathan Banks, global director of the Methane Pollution Prevention Program at the Clean Air Task Force.

“Countries all over the world are turning that ambition into action with concrete regulations and policies,
including in the USA, Canada, the EU, Nigeria, and Colombia. By contrast, Australia has yet to even announce a plan on how it will make good on its commitments to reduce methane emissions,” he says.

“The solutions and technologies for cutting emissions from the oil and gas, and coal sectors, are well established – it’s time to get moving.”

Rachel Williamson is a science and business journalist, who focuses on climate change-related health and environmental issues.

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