Mariner field in the UK North Sea (for illustration); Photo Jamie Baikie and Michal Wachucik/Equinor

‘Bold measures’ still needed for 2030 target but UK North Sea oil & gas emissions down for third consecutive year

UK’s regulator North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) has outlined in its new report that the oil and gas industry is making progress on curbing emissions with the reduction in 2022 achieved for the third year in a row despite the increase in production. However, more action will be required to halve emissions by 2030, as agreed in the North Sea Transition Deal (NSTD).

Mariner field in the UK North Sea (for illustration); Photo Jamie Baikie and Michal Wachucik/Equinor

According to the NSTA, Britain’s offshore oil and gas industry remains well on track to meet targets to cut emissions by 10 per cent by 2025 and 25 per cent by 2027, as agreed in the North Sea Transition Deal with the government in March 2021. This is hammered home by the drop in greenhouse gas emissions from UK offshore oil and gas production for the third consecutive year in 2022, as the industry continued its drive to reach net-zero by 2050. 

The estimated 3 per cent reduction in 2022 contributed to a 23 per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions between 2018 and 2022, according to the NSTA’s latest Emissions Monitoring Report. However, the North Sea Transition Authority is adamant that “bold measures” will be needed to hit the key target of halving emissions by 2030, which is the absolute minimum the regulator expects from industry.

Last year, the NSTA warned that a likely rise in oil and gas production in 2022 would cause emissions to remain flat or temporarily rise unless the industry took positive steps. In line with this, the industry investment in technologies that minimise flaring and fuel-efficiency initiatives meant emissions continued to fall, despite higher production than in 2021.

In a bid to illustrate this point, the NSTA underlines that an operator replaced components in a gas export compressor, lowering fuel consumption by 18 tonnes per day and saving 20,000 tonnes of CO2e emissions per annum.

Source: North Sea Transition Authority
Source: North Sea Transition Authority

Furthermore, emissions decreased by 78 per cent on offshore facilities between 2018 and 2022, in some cases through permanent shutdowns, but for 59 per cent of those, through active emissions reduction initiatives. In the NSTA’s view, these measures not only support the UK’s net-zero goals but also bolster energy security by saving gas that can be used to keep the lights on, homes heated and businesses running.

Even though the industry is making progress, the UK regulator points out that there is more work to do, as the industry needs to preserve its social licence to operate. The NSTA estimates that without further, sustained action, the sector will not meet the 2030 target of halving emissions.

Hedvig Ljungerud, NSTA Director of Strategy, commented: “There are some really positive findings to credit here including the year-on-year progress and active investment in new emissions reduction technology. However, we can’t hide from the fact that there is more work to do. The NSTA will steadfastly hold the sector to account on emissions, including its pledge to halve emissions by 2030, which is the absolute minimum we expect.”  

While the carbon footprint of UK gas is on average almost four times lower than imported LNG, it is more than twice as large as pipeline imports from Norway, whose basin is similar to the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS), based on the regulator’s data. As a result, the low carbon intensity of Norwegian gas should act as a spur to further clean up UK production.

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“The NSTA will continue to hold industry to account on emissions by monitoring, tracking and benchmarking operators’ performance, sharing best practice and pressing licensees for relentless progress on flaring reduction, fuel efficiency and platform electrification schemes,” underscored the regulator.

This is supported by the NSTA’s strategy, which was revised in 2021 to oblige industry to help the UK reach net-zero by 2050. The regulator subsequently began requiring operators to develop emissions reduction action plans for their facilities and issued tougher guidance stating all new developments should have no routine flaring and venting, with zero routine flaring across all North Sea platforms by 2030.

“The approach is proving to be effective, not only in emissions reductions achieved but since early 2021, NSTA interventions have contributed to preventing the emission of 3 million tonnes of lifetime CO2 equivalent, the same as taking more than 1.5 million cars off the road for a year,” highlighted the regulator.

Currently, the UK is pondering whether to head for the exit from a multilateral energy treaty – known as the Energy Charter Treaty – if a much stronger focus on promoting clean, affordable energy, such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage as well as hydrogen and other renewables, are not incorporated within the treaty’s framework.

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However, many are not happy with this and are demanding an immediate withdrawal from what they see as a “climate-wrecking” energy treaty, as eleven countries including Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Ireland have decided to exit the treaty, with the European Commission proposing a coordinated EU withdrawal in July.

Bearing this in mind, a new UK poll was conducted between 25 and 26 August 2023 by Yonder Consulting on behalf of Global Justice Now. The results show that less than one in ten (9 per cent) believe Britain should remain in the Energy Charter Treaty.