Climate

Why Did 7 Big Oil Companies Submit Climate Pledges To The United Nations?

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Earlier this week, seven oil and gas companies proposed methane emissions cuts as part of their contribution to a global climate deal ahead of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris later this year.

The companies — including the United States’ Southwestern Energy and Norway’s Statoil — have committed to cutting methane in oil production “by systematically surveying for nine key emission sources” and then reporting those findings to the public, the United Nations’ Climate Action website said. Specific reduction numbers were not listed in the database, though concrete reduction targets could be released at a later date.

Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Oil and gas production produces methane either via leaking infrastructure, or through a process known as flaring, where excess methane is intentionally released and then burned. Reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production could go a long way to helping the globe stay under a 2°C warming scenario — the International Energy Agency has estimated that curbing methane from upstream oil and gas production could account for 15 percent of the global emissions reductions needed to stay under 2°C.

“It’s heartening to see these companies understand the climate situation and understand the contribution that methane makes,” Han Chen, international climate advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told ThinkProgress. “I think that a lot of these corporations are facing inquiries from investors, looking at the divestment campaign, and seeing that they are going to have to eventually change their strategy.”

But when a company’s entire business is the extraction of fossil fuels for profit, their climate commitments need to be looked at critically, Greenpeace’s Travis Nichols told ThinkProgress.

“In general, it’s really good to consider the source of these things. You think, ‘Okay, this is an oil company, its entire M.O. is to extract fossil fuel,'” Nichols said. “If they’re making certain kinds of pledges, then we probably need to push them harder.”

In early June, six oil companies wrote a letter to the UN’s climate chief, pledging their support for international climate commitments and emphasizing their willingness to work with international bodies to place a price on carbon.

That’s a good start, Chen said, but environmentalists still want to see oil and gas companies go further. Recent scientific analysis suggests that to keep global temperatures under 2°C, 49 percent of the world’s remaining natural gas reserves and 33 percent of its remaining oil can’t be burned as fuel, meaning that oil and gas companies will need to look beyond their current infrastructure if they want to help prevent dangerous levels of climate change.

“We’re pretty happy that these corporations are even acknowledging that this is a serious problem that we’re facing, but what we need them to commit to over the long term needs to be significantly more than this,” Chen said. “We don’t think that thinking about a carbon price and just reducing methane leakage is going to be enough. In the long term, we’re talking about moving toward low carbon solutions.”

The commitments to methane reductions come just days after the Obama administration proposed methane regulations for new and modified oil and gas wells across the country. In January, the administration announced a goal of cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector between 40 and 45 percent by 2025, compared to 2012 levels.