Climate-damaging and health-endangering methane leaks documented for the first time in Austria
Methane is a gas that is invisible to the naked eye and 25 times more climate-damaging than CO2. However, methane can be documented with highly specialized infrared cameras. For the first time in Austria, Greenpeace has now documented the presence of suspicious methane emissions at three central locations of the domestic oil and gas industry - the Gas-Connect junction Baumgarten, the Borealis & OMV refinery Schwechat, and the OMV gas station Aderklaa. At all three locations, the highly climate-damaging gas escapes uncontrolled into the atmosphere.
English Article by Dora Schilling
What is fossil gas?
Gas is a fossil fuel that is often extracted together with oil from underground deposits. Fossil gas consists mainly of methane (85% percent share and higher). The components of the gas vary depending on the production area and in some cases further facilities are required to enrich methane and feed it into the gas network. In addition to the main share of methane, fossil gas can also contain other components such as propane, ethane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Gas continues to play an important role in Austria's energy mix. 21.8% of Austria's gross domestic energy consumption is covered by gas. Together with oil (36.7%) and coal (8.2%), the share of fossil fuels amounts to a total of around 67%. The combustion of fossil fuels produces high levels of CO2 emissions and is thus driving the climate crisis forward.
Greenpeace documents uncontrolled emissions at Austrian oil and gas sites
For the first time in Austria Greenpeace is making the uncontrolled leakage of highly climate-damaging and potentially health-endangering emissions at oil and gas locations visible using a highly specialized FLIR infrared camera of the Modell Flir GF320. This type of camera is often used in international research on methane leaks and by industry insiders. The climate poison methane otherwise invisible to the naked eye is made visible by this special camera. The Greenpeace CEE investigative team documented the uncontrolled emissions at two independent, randomly selected times at the Aderklaa gas station, the Baumgarten Gas Connect junction and on one occasion at the Borealis and OMV sites in Schwechat.
OMV-GAS STATION ADERKLAA
Key discoveries in the Greenpeace research showed up in Aderklaa. The escaping gas was only partially and not completely combusted, which can lead to apprehensive residues of methane, fine particles, carbon monoxide or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Looking at the right-hand side of the close-up pictures in Aderklaa, a vent can be seen from which hydrocarbons - these include climate damaging methane, but also VOCs, which can be harmful to human health - escape. The panoramic pictures on the other hand show that the emissions sometimes range over long distances while still remaining clearly visible for the camera. This means that, depending on weather conditions and exact chemical composition, the emissions can have negative consequences for flora and fauna as well as for the people living in the surrounding area. It is likely that these emissions contribute to climate disturbance and worsen the air quality of the local environment.
OMV REFINERY & BOREALIS
In Schwechat, it was documented how gas was also not completely combusted. The camera shows what remains hidden from the eye: Once again, the emissions sometimes travel long distances. This means that substantial amounts of escaping gas can be assumed and that, depending on weather conditions, the emissions can also have a direct impact on the surrounding area. The analysis of the site also shows emissions that are not visible to the naked eye. This is an indication that these are also climate-damaging emissions such as methane. But the Greenpeace team also made discoveries on the ground surface. Obviously, harmful fossil gases are escaping here as well, although the direct source cannot be identified from the pictures.
GAS JUNCTION BAUMGARTEN
The Baumgarten gas junction operated by Gas Connect (until 23.09.2020 51% share of OMV, now 51% share of Verbund) also shows only partly or non-combusted gases, as well as dubious emissions that are not visible to the naked eye and could cause damage to the climate and environment.
Problem: Gas Combustion
When natural gas is burned, the methane (CH4) is transformed into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O). Both methane and carbon dioxide are powerful greenhouse gases that are the main drivers of the human-made climate crisis. In fact, CO2 from fossil combustion and industrial processes accounts for 65% and methane for 16% of all human-made greenhouse gases. So if gas is burned, for example to heat homes or generate electricity, CO2 is produced, which drives the climate crisis. At the same time gas is still gaining ground in Austria: since 1990, consumption has risen by +54%. In some cases oil is being replaced by gas, and the fossil industry argues that gas is much more "climate-friendly" than oil or coal. This conclusion is indeed correct, if only the combustion in power plants is considered - Natural gas produces only half as many greenhouse gases as coal. However, this assessment ignores the major problem of methane leaks.
Problem: Methane leaks
The climate killer gas causes much more dramatic climate damage if it enters the atmosphere unburned in the form of methane. Methane is 25 times (measured over 100 years) and even 85 times (measured over 20 years) more harmful to the climate than CO2 when it enters the atmosphere. This happens when the gas escapes uncontrolled through leaks during extraction from the ground, during transport over hundreds of thousands of kilometers or when stored in tanks - or in some cases when it is intentionally released. In addition to being emitted, it is also sometimes burned without any energetic benefit, which converts it to CO2. Burning off and discharging gases are common methods if the companies consider the use of associated gases according to the requirements of the technology to be too costly or not lucrative due to low local market prices.
Global climate killer methane
The methane concentration in the earth's atmosphere is increasing: Annual methane emissions have increased by an average of 50 million tons per year in the period 2000-2006. The main drivers are agriculture with intensive livestock farming and the fossil gas industry. A comparison of emissions from the fossil sector - including leaking gas fields and brittle pipelines - shows an increase of 17% between the average of the period 2000-2006 and 2017. Methane emissions are thus at a record high and have increased 2.5-fold compared to the pre-industrial age. A recent article in the scientific journal "Nature" goes even further and assumes that human-made methane emissions are underestimated by 25-40%.
Situation in Austria
In Austria, methane with 8.2% share of all human-made greenhouse gases is climate killer No. 2 after CO2. It is produced on landfills, in agriculture and livestock farming, but also by unnoticed leakage in the gas infrastructure. The latter emissions are caused by methane leaks from oil and gas production and the natural gas network and when converted into CO2 equivalents amount to 244,200 tons of CO2 (0.24 million tons). That is the amount of climate-damaging emissions caused by around 125,000 cars per year, which is only slightly less than the entire car fleet of the city of Graz. However, it should be critically noted that the data in this country is largely based on estimates, including estimates by the industry itself, but also that methane emissions are only multiplied by a factor of 25 to put them in relation to CO2, not by a factor of 85, which quantifies the greenhouse gas heating potential for the next critical 20 years (instead of 100 years).
The Austrian OMV states that in 2019 it caused 49,376 tons of methane emissions. Converted into CO2 equivalents, this amounts to 1.23 million tons per year. This is as much as 630,000 cars per year, which is slightly less than all cars registered in Vienna. At the same time, these are emissions that are emitted without fulfilling even the slightest benefit.
Although OMV strives to close these leaks, the seriousness of these assertions, as well as their technological feasibility, is open to doubt: In the last three years, there has been an annual increase in methane emissions. Borealis AG, in whose manufacturing processes gas is burned off or the climate-damaging gas escapes even unnoticed, still owes appropriate statistics to this.
Health-endangering effects of gas
Both methane and volatile organic compounds and other hydrocarbons found in natural gas are precursors for the creation of ozone. Ozone is a powerful irritant gas and a risk to human health. It can lead to respiratory tract problems (inflammatory changes), reduced lung function and reduced performance. Also the animal and plant world suffers from ozone pollution. The Institute for Sustainable Transformation Research estimates the value of annual harvest losses due to ozone at 11-18 billion dollars. Depending on the weather conditions, the uncontrolled escape of methane can have a negative impact on the air quality of the affected areas.
Gas is not a climate-friendly solution
Gas is many times more harmful to the climate when considering its entire cycle of use. The release of methane along the production chain is unpredictable and annihilates the supposed advantage of climate-friendly combustion. In addition, terms such as "climate-friendly" in connection with gas are misleading and illusory. The combustion of gas will always produce climate-damaging emissions. Like a cigarette does not become "health-friendly" or "health-protective" through a filter, fossil fuels like gas will never be good for the climate.
Further investments in gas infrastructure must be stopped, as they consolidate a highly climate-damaging business model for the coming decades, inhibit investment in other renewable energy systems and make it impossible to achieve the Paris climate goals - which were set to save the climate. For a truly climate-friendly energy system, we need investments in renewable energies - above all solar and wind energy, as well as battery storage systems, electric motors, heat pumps and the use of geothermics.