The potent greenhouse gas methane is spewing out of natural gas infrastructure across the European Union because of leaks and venting, video footage made available to Reuters shows.
Using a 100,000 euro ($119,000) infrared camera, non-profit Clean Air Task Force (CATF) found methane seeping into the atmosphere at 123 oil and gas sites in Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Romania this year. Methane, the biggest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide (CO2), is the main component of natural gas and over 80 times more potent than CO2 in its first 20 years in the air.
Currently, the EU does not regulate methane emissions in the energy sector, meaning companies running the sites surveyed by CATF are not breaking laws because of leaks or venting. While some member states require firms to report some emissions there is no overarching framework forcing them to monitor smaller leaks, or fix them.
That's set to change.
The EU is proposing laws this year that will force oil and gas companies to monitor and report methane emissions, as well as improve the detection and repair of leaks.
In the energy sector, methane is emitted intentionally through venting and by accident from sites such as gas storage tanks, liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, pipeline compressor stations and oil and gas processing sites. CATF visited over 200 sites in seven EU countries and filmed emissions with the infrared camera in public vantage points to detect hydrocarbons invisible to the naked eye, such as methane.
"Once you see it, you can't unsee it," said CATF's James Turitto, who filmed the emissions. "If we have any hope of achieving only a 1.5 Celsius rise in average global temperatures, we must stop these leaks."
Altogether, CATF counted 271 incidents, with some sites leaching methane from several places. Turitto said over 90 per cent of the sites he visited in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Romania were emitting methane while his hit rate in Germany and Austria was lower.
A selection of the CATF thermography, which shows hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, was reviewed by five technical experts contacted by Reuters.
Given emissions were at installations handling natural gas - and methane is its main component - they concluded the emissions recorded by CATF were almost certainly methane.
At one gas plant owned by Italy's Eni near the town of Pineto on the country's Adriatic coast, methane appears to be leaking from a rusty hole in the side of a tank.
The footage captures a snapshot of each site's emissions on a given day so it cannot quantify the amount of methane being emitted over longer periods. What it does reveal is emissions that could be avoided if infrastructure owners used commercially available measurement and abatement technology, emissions experts said.
"If there are cracks in the storage tanks, it is a relatively easy fix to patch the tanks," said Jonathan Dorn, an air quality expert at Abt Associates.
Turitto said he called an emergency number for reporting leaks at the Eni site but the line was dead.
Eni said the leak at Pineto was from a water tank which would have had negligible amounts of gas and that it had been detected and fixed during regular maintenance.
"We are strengthening our efforts in the implementation of periodic leak detection and repair monitoring campaigns," Eni said, adding that it was supportive of EU regulations to address methane emissions.
Brussels put energy companies on notice in October that it would target them with new rules on gas leaks and was also considering restrictions on venting or flaring of methane.
"The Commission calls on companies in the oil, gas and coal sectors to set up more robust leak detection and repair programmes to prepare for upcoming proposals for legislation that would make such programmes mandatory," it said.
An EU official told Reuters this month that because the EU has few methane "super emitters", the legislation would focus on tackling the smaller but far more frequent emissions that occur throughout energy sector infrastructure.
"The first thing is to really try to address these more diffused emissions of methane, covering the whole energy sector," the official, who declined to be named, said.
Experts say the new rules will shake things up for every oil and gas firm in Europe, not least because the EU is considering forcing companies to find and fix even the smallest leaks.
"Each company has a lot to do," said Andris Piebalgs, professor at the Florence School of Regulation and a former EU energy commissioner.
It is unlikely the new rules would take effect before 2023 but Brussels wants to get them in place early enough to contribute to its goal of cutting net emissions of all greenhouse gases by 55 per cent by 2030 from 1990 levels.
The EU is not alone. US President Joe Biden's administration plans to propose new rules this year to reduce methane emissions.