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Gas well methane leaks a ‘huge’ environmental and economic issue, BP’s Bernard Looney says

The head of one of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers has called for a clampdown by the industry on fugitive emissions, saying it makes no sense for companies to allow their product to escape.

Bernard Looney, the boss of oil and gas supermajor BP, said methane leakage from gas wells in Australia and across the globe was a “huge issue” that needed to be fixed on economic and environmental grounds.

In a wide-ranging interview with the ABC, Mr Looney also said there would need to be investment in new oil and gas projects out to 2050, even as global economies moved towards carbon neutrality.

The 52-year-old said wrestling with what he described as the energy trilemma of emissions intensity, security and affordability was a complex task.

But he said the unprecedented energy crisis that had played out in 2022 showed how high the stakes were and why governments and investors needed to be careful about how they managed the switch to renewable sources.

Methane is far more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon during its first 20 years in the atmosphere.(AP: David Goldman)

“What you will see over time, is reducing demand for hydrocarbons, reducing investment in hydrocarbons,” Mr Looney said.

“But that is not the same as no investment.

“Oil and gas fields decline faster than what societal demand decline will be.

“And in that middle, you have to invest.

“You have to invest — otherwise, you end up with the problem we have today, which is you don’t have enough supply, prices go through the roof and the consumer is affected and obviously starts to question, ‘What are we trying to do here?'”

A huge ship is dwarfed by one of dozens of massive turbines at an offshore windfarm.
There are calls for BP to emulate other former oil producers that have wholly switched to green energy.(Supplied: Star of South)

‘The less you leak, the more you sell’

When he ascended to the top job at the world’s sixth-biggest oil and gas firm in 2020, Mr Looney outlined ambitious plans to reduce the company’s carbon output.

A key plank was tackling the leakage from BP’s production wells of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon.

Mr Looney noted that methane was natural gas and therefore it made no environmental or economic sense to waste it.

“The less you leak, the more you sell, and there’s an economic benefit to that in itself,” the Irish national said.

“It’s an absolute priority for our company.

“In many parts of the world, increasing regulation on methane means that there will be a cost in the regulatory system to methane leakage.”

A worker in high-vis and a hard hat stands in front of a large reservoir tower bearing BP branding.
BP is best known to many Australians as a distributor and retailer of fuel.(AAP: Dan Peled)

Clean Energy Finance director Tim Buckley, a prominent renewable energy advocate, said BP’s efforts to limit its methane emissions appeared to be genuine.

Mr Buckley said the importance of preventing methane emissions should not be underestimated.

“The reason why methane is so important is it is literally a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions every year,” Mr Buckley said.

“Scientific convention is evaluated on a 100-year view, but we’ve got a climate emergency which means we really should be talking about methane on a 20- to 30-year convention.

“Methane on that basis is 84 to 86 times worse than carbon dioxide.

“It is the elephant in the room.”

Two people stand atop a shrubby hillock on a glorious day in the outback.
BP controls plans to build the world’s biggest renewable energy project in WA’s Pilbara.(ABC Catalyst)

Australia’s green opportunity

Another part of the shake-up under Mr Looney was BP’s shift towards cleaner technologies such as wind, hydrogen, biogas and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Earlier this year the British company bought a controlling stake in the world’s biggest green power proposal — the $52-billion Asian Renewable Energy Hub in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

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