A review of current and future methane emissions from Australian unconventional oil and gas production

Authors: Dimitri Lafleur1, Tim Forcey2, Hugh Saddler3 and Mike Sandiford4

1 Australian-German Climate and Energy College (University of Melbourne)
2 Energy Advisor, Melbourne Energy Institute (University of Melbourne)
3 Hon. Assoc. Professor, Crawford School (Australian National University)
4 Professor of Geology, School of Earth Sciences (University of Melbourne)

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Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when its atmospheric warming impacts are considered over a 20-year time period, and 34 times more powerful over a 100-year time period. Reducing methane emissions is therefore an important part of any strategy to avoid dangerous climate change, as agreed by world leaders at the December 2015 Paris conference. Given the vast growth potential of unconventional oil and gas in Australia, this review addresses the current understanding of methane emissions by that industry, referencing recent developments in overseas jurisdictions. If natural gas is to provide maximum net climate benefit versus coal, the release of methane to the Earth's atmosphere (both intentional and unintentional) must be held to less than about one per cent of total gas production. In this context, the commitment of the Australian CSG-LNG industry1 to limit methane emissions to no more than 0.1% of total gas production is commendable.

Our review finds that:

  • no baseline methane-emission studies were completed prior to the commencement of the Australian CSG-LNG industry
  • there is significant uncertainty about methane-emission estimates reported by oil and gas producers to the Australian government, and by the Australian government to the United Nations. The United Nations has requested that Australia improve its methodologies.
  • Australian methane-emission reporting methodologies rely to a significant extent on assumed emissions factors rather than direct measurement.
  • the assumptions used to estimate methane emissions include some that are out-dated, and some that lack demonstrated relevance to the Australian unconventional oil and gas industry.
  • despite Australian Government greenhouse-gas reporting requirements having been established in 2009 and Australia's unconventional gas industry operating at significant scale since 2010 and rapidly expanding since, there has as yet been no comprehensive, rigorous, independently verifiable audit of gas emissions. Indeed, to quote CSIRO, "reliable measurements on Australian oil and gas production facilities are yet to be made." (Day, Dell’Amico et al. (2014)).
  • if methane emissions from unconventional oil and gas production are being significantly underreported, this could have a large impact on Australia's national greenhouse accounts.
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