The oil and gas industry claims programs to “certify” gas will reduce emissions and allow them to market their gas as clean and safe for the climate. But a look at the companies that have committed to certification, and those who haven’t, highlights why voluntary programs fail to motivate the worst methane polluters – and why gas certification isn’t a viable climate solution.
In reality, so-called certified or differentiated gas is more akin to creating an extra credit market that rewards gas-focused producers for claiming they meet the bare minimum of what they are already legally obligated to do.
To be credible, programs monitoring emissions must push the industry to go beyond the status quo – something they have so far failed to do. (And that’s assuming their technologies are accurately assessing emissions – which they aren’t.) Until then, certification will continue to be geared more toward greenwashing the industry's image than substantively reducing emissions.
WHO'S CERTIFYING, AND WHO ISN'T?
According to industry reports (which have not been independently verified), about 30% of current U.S. gas production is reportedly pursuing some form of certification. The vast majority of the dozen-plus producers that have committed to certification are gas-focused companies operating in areas like the Appalachian Basin. Oil and gas producers that are known to be undergoing certification for at least a small portion of their gas production include the following:
1: Status derived according to the Certification Period listed for each producer in the MiQ Registry, accessed December 2023. Project Canary does not provide a publicly accessible registry for gas producers currently receiving its certification.
Numerous studies have shown the oil and gas industry's methane emissions are far higher than the official estimates recorded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nevertheless, comparing the list of companies pursuing certification to the emissions data that U.S. oil and gas producers report to EPA illustrates a stark divide: None of the most intense methane-polluting companies are seeking certification.
WHY THE WORST EMITTERS AREN'T LINING UP TO "CERTIFY" THEIR GAS PRODUCTION
Companies that primarily produce oil, and therefore treat gas as a byproduct, are among the biggest polluters. The economic incentives to pursue voluntary certification have generally failed to convince these companies that certification is in their interest.
While some gas-focused drillers have embraced voluntary gas certification programs, they remain mostly unappealing for operators primarily targeting oil. For example, in the Permian Basin, the most prolific oil basin in the U.S., methane leakage, venting, and flaring are rampant. About 15% of U.S. gas production comes as a byproduct of these oil-focused drillers (commonly referred to as “associated gas”), and the share of the U.S. gas market supplied by associated gas is expected to increase significantly over the next few years. For these producers, the costs of capturing and processing all of the available associated gas far outweigh what they recoup by selling it.
In addition, not only is participation in certification programs voluntary, it’s also temporary. Gas certification programs like MiQ require annual renewals, a complete mismatch for oil and gas industry production cycles in which new wells, once drilled, usually remain in production for decades. This gap exposes an inherent weakness in certification: Wells tend to get leakier as they age, and researchers estimate that old, marginal oil and gas wells are responsible for almost half of all U.S. well-site methane emissions.
The companies that drill wells also commonly divest those assets as they age, typically to buyers with lower environmental commitments that try to squeeze profits by minimizing investment and delaying cleanup obligations. Investigations have found widespread gas leaks at these decaying oil and gas well sites. The upshot is that some producers actively drilling new gas wells have flocked to certification, but those snatching up aging wells have shown no inclination to participate in these voluntary monitoring schemes.
As the International Energy Agency and global consensus have both recently concluded, methane emissions reductions cannot substitute or distract from the need to begin phasing out fossil fuel production. Gas certification schemes will do little to bend the emissions curve, and risk delaying the transition away from oil and gas.