Much potential to reduce methane emissions European energy industry

Research provides tools for targeted approach

Photo: Environmental Defense Fund

The oil industry in Romania has an enormous potential for reducing methane emissions. This has been demonstrated by a team of scientists led by Professor Thomas Röckmann from Utrecht University. In 2019, the amount of methane emitted by the Romanian oil industry was equal to the amount of methane emitted by all other European oil industries combined. The research was funded by the Environmental Defense Fund and published on 20 September in the scientific Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Romania is a major European oil producer. The country discovered early in its history how to produce oil on a large scale. Today, Romania manufactures about 3.3 million tons of oil per year. It is pumped from oil wells, processed by refineries, and transported through an extensive network of pipelines. The oil wells often contain natural gas, too, which mainly consists of methane.

The new study shows that about 120 kilotons of methane was released from oil production in Romania in 2019. That is estimated to be as much as the emissions from all other European oil industries combined. On average, according to the study, the emission amounts to 5.4 kilograms of methane per hour, at each site where measurements were taken (see box).

Controlled release

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and reducing its emissions is important to combat global warming. The new study shows how much methane ends up in the atmosphere as a result of the oil industry in Romania, and indicates the exact sources of the gas. Leaks and other failures occur regularly, but the majority, up to three-quarters of the total methane emissions, appear to be related to the controlled release of natural gas. The oil industry releases the gas for operational reasons, and because, here, it is often still seen as a byproduct.

Oil companies and governments now have the right information to reduce methane emissions in a very targeted and significant way

European legislation

According to Röckmann, it was totally unexpected that the Romanian oil industry emits so much methane. In 2020, the emissions reported by the EU were two and a half times less. That makes the study even more relevant. "Oil companies and governments now have the right information to reduce methane emissions in a very targeted and significant way," Röckmann said. Currently, there is a proposal from the European Commission under negotiation with new requirements for the energy industry, including the oil industry. It prohibits the controlled release of natural gas, and requires companies to detect and repair leaks in a timely manner.

Climate impact

Reducing methane emissions from Romania's oil industry would greatly reduce total emissions from the EU energy industry. Other sources of methane also contribute to the total EU emissions, including agriculture as the front-runner. And it is obviously important to address these as well. But the energy sector is attractive because reductions are technically feasible and cost-effective. "The research can therefore ultimately have a major climate impact," Röckmann says.

Thomas Röckmann's team took measurements at 178 oil wells and several of the Romanian oil industry's other onshore facilities, such as oil parks and compressor stations. Drones and cars with measuring equipment, among others, were used to collect the data.

The research group is currently mapping methane emissions from Romania's gas industry. This is the largest gas industry in Europe.