Big Oil’s Pledge to Curb Methane Faces Test in Gulf of Thailand

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Methane observed by satellite over the Gulf of Thailand in April 2023.

A natural gas platform in the Gulf of Thailand has attracted a fresh warning over methane emissions first detected more than a decade ago, another test of global pledges to curb releases of the potent greenhouse gas.

Emissions from the site, operated by a joint venture between units of two state-backed energy companies — Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and Thailand’s PTT Exploration and Production Pcl — have been observed at least 60 times by satellite since 2013, and the owners were most recently urged in May to address the problem. 

Both companies are among about 50 oil and gas producers that agreed in December at the COP28 climate talks to reduce methane releases to close to zero by 2030 and to halt the routine flaring of natural gas.

It means the Petronas-PTTEP joint venture, located within the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area, is being watched as an indicator of the industry’s commitment to accelerate progress on emissions reduction.

“Given the scale and persistence of these emissions, swift action is needed to address them,” Manfredi Caltagirone, head of the United Nations International Methane Emissions Observatory, said in a statement. The observatory was established in 2021, in part to track the world’s largest releases of the gas and to alert operators and governments so they can be halted.

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IMEO most recently alerted stakeholders to methane emissions at the Gulf of Thailand operation on May 14, adding to similar notifications in April and November last year, the organization confirmed this week. 

The site had an average emissions rate of 4,650 kilograms an hour when observed by satellite over the past decade — including detections when no methane was observed, according to IMEO data. That’s far higher than average rates of releases seen in other large oil and gas producing regions, though many of those studies were conducted across multiple platforms and using aerial surveys, a different technique.

Methane releases at the platform aren’t the result of leaks and the facility remains safe for operations and for the surrounding area, according to Petronas. The producer’s unit is “working closely together with our stakeholders for continuous operation improvements,” the company said in a statement.

PTTEP’s unit is “fully collaborative” on efforts to reduce emissions and on the execution of a methane management plan for the joint venture, the parent company said. Both Petronas and PTTEP declined to specify the cause of the platform’s methane emissions.

The methane releases are potentially the result of flaring — a process that’s typically used to burn off excess or waste gas, or to convert methane into less harmful carbon dioxide, according to IMEO and other scientists.

Data from IMEO and other sources suggest the offshore platform’s flare is intermittent and often blowing out, possibly due to high winds or because of large volumes of gas, said Matthew Johnson, scientific director of the Energy & Emissions Research Lab at Carleton University.

“Although the flare appears to be lit, it is emitting enough unburned methane to be visible from space by methane-detecting satellites,” IMEO’s Caltagirone said.

Reducing releases of methane from coal, oil and gas operations is widely agreed to be one of the fastest and cheapest methods to limit planetary warming. 

Failure to address continued methane releases from the Gulf of Thailand could become a deterrent for some gas customers, though most buyers are simply looking for the cheapest source, said Robert N. Stavins, a professor of energy and economic development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It could also be a factor that would impact the credibility of efforts by Thailand and Malaysia to meet national emissions reduction goals under the Paris Agreement, he said.

Representatives for Thailand’s energy ministry and Malaysia’s government didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Oil & Gas Decarbonization Charter struck at COP28 proposes sharp cuts to methane emissions by the end of the decade, though the targets aren’t binding.

Petronas and PTTEP are both also members of the UN’s Oil & Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, which aims to improve the measurement and monitoring of methane releases. That group’s success will depend on adding more companies and on “whether its framework can evolve beyond emissions accounting to abatement,” BloombergNEF analysts including Maria-Olivia Torcea said in a March report. 

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

By Aaron Clark


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