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Tracking Europe’s methane leak problem

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LONDERZEEL, Belgium — To the naked eye, there was nothing to suggest that a potent greenhouse gas was seeping into the air around this small Flemish town.

But when James Turitto pointed his €100,000 infrared camera at an innocuous-looking fuel tank at a truck stop in the town’s industrial outskirts, the lens revealed a steady stream of gas — primarily methane — rising into the cloudy sky.

For several months this year, Turitto has been traveling across Europe on the hunt for methane, an odorless gas whose warming effect is as much as 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over two decades.

“It’s a way of showing emissions are everywhere — everywhere we look,” Turitto, a campaigner with the NGO Clean Air Task Force, said of his project.

In every country he’s visited, his camera found gas infrastructure leaking methane with little oversight. Turitto estimates he’s found “400 to 500 sources of emissions” at some 250 sites — from pipes in Romania to liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in Italy and truck stops in Belgium.

Methane is the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide, but the pollutant has long received comparatively little attention. That’s starting to change.

Gas escapes from a valve at Winksele compressor station in Flanders | James Turitto/Clean Air Task Force

This month, the EU and the United States pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent over the next decade, and a United Nations report released earlier this year said slashing methane emissions “is one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming.”

That means the bloc also needs to get to grips with the problem in its natural gas infrastructure if it wants to meet climate targets.

Efforts are underway: Toward the end of this year, the European Commission is expected to propose legislation requiring companies to better monitor their emissions. Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s environment committee on Tuesday called for binding methane reduction targets in the EU.

Focusing on fossils

Globally, the energy sector is not too far behind agriculture as a source of methane emissions, and recent studies suggest that the level of emissions produced by the oil and gas industry has been severely underestimated. 

In the EU, less than 13 percent of man-made methane emissions come from energy supply, according to 2019 data from the European Environment Agency. About a quarter come from waste and more than half come from agriculture.

But politically, it’s much easier to put pressure on the fossil fuel industry than to tangle with the EU’s millions of politically powerful farmers.

The fuel tank outside Londerzeel that’s leaking gas | Zia Weise/POLITICO

Green activists and lawmakers have criticized the Commission’s methane strategy for not setting binding rules for livestock farming, and the U.S.-EU pledge includes no measures to encourage people to eat less meat. 

The Commission argues that reducing energy emissions is comparatively straightforward.

“While the energy, agriculture and waste sectors all have a role to play, energy is where emissions can be cut the quickest with least costs,” Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said last year.

While cows may be a bigger problem, plenty of the methane emissions Turitto’s camera detected can be prevented with available technology.

The tank outside Londerzeel could have been boiling off gas to reduce pressure, Turitto said, but “it certainly shouldn’t be happening. There are systems to recapture boil-off gas … it’s avoidable.” 

East of Brussels’ Zaventem airport, gas seeped into the atmosphere from at least five different sources at a compressor station — a key piece of infrastructure that helps the fuel move through pipelines — run by the Belgium-based company Fluxys. 

Gas seeps out from an LNG truck refueling station near Londerzeel, Belgium | James Turitto/Clean Air Task Force

Turitto’s camera detected gas escaping from a valve as well as what he described as “continuous venting” from two pipes. 

Tim Doty, a Texas-based consultant in thermographic imaging who reviewed the Clean Air Task Force footage for POLITICO, said the images at both the Londerzeel site and the compressor station “document releases of methane which greatly contribute to climate change.” 

Such emissions are currently not regulated at the EU level. Flanders, the Belgian region where the two sites are located, does not require companies to conduct leak detection and repair programs, an official at the Flemish Energy and Climate Agency said, although some do so on “a voluntary basis or due to special permit conditions.”

A Fluxys spokesman said the company was “aware of some small methane emissions at our Winksele compression station,” saying they were linked to ongoing works. 

He added that the company had already taken measures to reduce methane emissions generated by its infrastructure, resulting in 25 percent fewer leaks between 2017 and 2020, and that Fluxys carries out detection programs at its compression facilities once a year.

Petrol station operator Maes, which runs the LNG truck filling site outside Londerzeel, did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Clean Air Task Force wants the Commission to impose a timeframe for leak detection on companies. 

Gas streams from vent relief stacks at Winksele compressor station in Flanders | James Turitto/Clean Air Task Force

“The more frequently they go and check for leaks, the greater emission reductions we can get,” said Jonathan Banks, the nonprofit’s international director for methane. “We’re advocating for at least four times a year but it should be moving toward continuous emissions monitoring because that’s where the technology is headed.” 

Setting deadlines for fixing the problem is just as important, according to Banks.

“What we’ve found … with big leaks, companies know about them and they’ve known about them for a while,” he said. “They have plans to repair it but the plans are a long way out, in part because no one has ever told them you have to repair it in a certain amount of time.” 

Foreign emissions

The industry seems largely on board with a degree of regulation. 

This month, major energy companies including Shell, BP and ExxonMobil published a set of recommendations for EU policymakers that include guidelines for leak detection, for example, albeit with an emphasis on “flexibility” rather than “blanket obligations and rules.” 

They’re also calling on the Commission to address methane emissions from imported gas.

Gas seeps out from an LNG truck refueling station near Londerzeel, Belgium | James Turitto/Clean Air Task Force

“For them it’s a commercial consideration, to ensure a level playing field,” said Dagmar Droogsma, who leads the Environmental Defense Fund’s work on European policy.

Green groups also want the EU to pay more attention to imported emissions, given that the bloc imports most of the gas it consumes. For now, the Commission has merely announced it would “examine options as regards possible methane emission reduction targets or standards or other incentives on fossil energy consumed and imported in the EU.” 

“Our worry is that it will be explored but that ends up being it,” Droogsma said. “If you’re only focusing on domestic measures, the emission reduction will be limited … We lose valuable time if we don’t look at the whole picture.” 

While the effort to clamp down on methane from the oil and gas sector is only attacking a part of the problem, it’s an approach that can pay quick dividends, argued Turitto.

“Reducing methane emissions in agriculture is much harder,” he said. “That’s why the focus on oil and gas is so important — because it can be done relatively quickly.”

This article has been updated with the outcome of the European Parliament’s environment committee vote. 

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Energy and Climate. From climate change, emissions targets, alternative fuels and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the Energy and Climate policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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