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North Sea oil rigs cause a "coal plant" worth of preventable emissions

Photo: Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace

Research just published reveals that North Sea oil and gas rigs release as much Carbon Dioxide (CO2) as a coal-fuelled power plant each year. The data comes from an analysis by UnearthedGreenpeace’s investigative unit – and sourced from a request made to the government’s Environmental Emissions Monitoring System. It shows that almost 20m tonnes of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere between 2015 and 2019 through flaring and venting i.e. burning off unwanted natural gas.

The research produced by Greenpeace names the five worst offenders as Repsol Sinopec – a joint venture between Spanish and Chinese state-owned oil companies, French-owned Total, Shell, BP and Enquest. The latter three are all British companies and Greenpeace criticised the UK government for not being more proactive in acting to reduce the emissions.

Flaring and venting have been contentious topics for many years. Natural gas flaring is the controlled combustion of volatile hydrocarbons and venting is the direct release of natural gas into the atmosphere. The practice is sometimes carried out for safety reasons often is done to avoid transporting gas deemed unprofitable back to shore.

The government agency which controls the permits required for flaring and venting is the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA). Their guidance is that some flaring and venting is unavoidable but they require it to “be kept to a technically and economically justified minimum”. The OGA adds that it is “reviewing its flaring and venting policy in light of…wider government policy, in particular net zero”.

Greenpeace contrasts this policy with that of the Norwegian government who have banned non-emergency flaring since 1972. The OGA wording that companies should take all reasonable steps to keep flaring and venting to a minimum is, according to Greenpeace, “weak”. As a consequence, flaring on the UK Continental Shelf is “eleven times higher than in Norway and twice the North Sea average”.

The investigation carried out by Greenpeace also found that “since 2015 – when BP, Total and Repsol promised to curb their emissions as part of their commitment to the Paris Agreement – venting and flaring emissions from their North Sea operations actually increased”. BP responded by saying they reduced flaring in the North Sea by almost 45% in 2020 against the previous year and plans to eliminate routine flaring across all their operations by 2027.

Greenpeace also point out that the OGA backs the approach taken within the fossil fuel industry in extracting oil and gas more efficiently rather than reducing the amount produced. Again, they compare the government’s policy with that a Nordic country – this time, Denmark – where no more licences for gas or oil exploration in the North Sea are being issued.

In 2015, the World Bank launched the Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 Initiative. The catalyst was the realisation that 140 billion cubic metres of natural gas flared at oil production sites globally led to 300m tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere. The initiative has been endorsed by 34 governments and 41 oil companies including Repsol, Shell and Total.


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