Global Registry of Fossil Fuels

How many emissions are in the pipeline?

Peak Oil and Exploration Activity

Although there is broad consensus around the need for an energy transition to cut emissions levels, views differ around how use of fossil fuels – the world’s main energy source – should decline. The International Energy Agency predicts peak oil by 2028, while major oil producers predict it further in the future, perhaps in the early 2030s.

But the need to stop exploring for new fossil fuels is more sharply defined. Denmark, for instance, a founder member of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, has declared it will grant no new exploration licenses, and Spain and France have done the same.

The IEA says that to meet the target of Net Zero by 2050 there should be no new long-term oil and gas projects as of now. The need to stop oil and gas exploration is even more imperative. Traditionally, an oil or gas project can take five years or more to develop from the time of a discover until the start of production, and then another 20 to 40 years when the field actually produces. Oil exploration today could result in new fields which are still producing in 2070 – 20 years after the world is supposed to have reached Net Zero. There is a complete mismatch between continued exploration and any scenario of transition to a low carbon economy to avoid disastrous climate change.

Measuring the emissions embedded in new oil and gas discoveries

The world must start to manage the decline of fossil fuel production in order to prevent global heating reaching catastrophic levels and yet one of the most important figures we need – how much new fossil fuels are being added to the existing global stock – is missing from the public domain. Governments must start to release the data they already have from new exploration, so that the scale of expansion can be tracked and managed. In 2022, new oil and gas fields with about 20 billion tons of emissions were added by exploration and new infrastructure build. This would be a significant enough total at a time when experts reckon we can emit less than 300 billion tons in total. But the 20 billion figure in fact represents only a floor to the amount of emissions embedded in new discoveries. The real figure could be as high as 50 billion tons The reason we cannot be more precise is because the 20 billion ton figure reflects only the increase in Net Reserves Balances from 2011 to 2022, the amount of discovered oil and gas reported to be available for production. But over gas and oil generating over 30 billion tons of emissions was burnt in the same period. The total amount of new reserves could be anything between 20 and 50 billion tons.

The traditional way of counting oil and gas reserves was for shareholders in companies to know how many assets the company retained to produce in the future. But the energy transition and the climate emergency introduce the need for a new dimension – how many emissions are embedded in global stocks of fossil fuels, and how many are being added by fresh expansion.

The need is to get a handle, at the global and national level, on Net New oil and gas reserves added.

New Oil and Gas Reserves in corporate reporting cycles

Large oil and gas companies which are listed on major financial markets publish detailed updates to their oil and gas reserves which identify newly added oil and gas as sub-categories. For example, ExxonMobil’s company reporting shows they added 5.5 billion barrels equivalent of oil and gas in the years 2020-22.

But national oil companies in major oil producing countries, privately held companies and governments overwhelmingly do not. They state simply the start and end balance of net reserves – how much oil and gas can be produced in the future. The consequence is: we are unable to be more precise about how many emissions were in new oil and gas added to stocks last year than somewhere between 20 and 50 billion tons.

Supply chain emissions vary considerably from field to field, depending on the physical qualities of oil and gas, operational procedures, sophistication of processing equipment and other factors. But asset-level data is extremely rare in public domain. The Global Registry therefore takes an approach of establishing country-level emissions factors. Some differences in carbon intensity do attach to broad areas, such as a petroleum province, or infrastructure across an entire country, so while there are margins of uncertainty, they are not unmanageable. These uncertainties are typically reflected in presenting not a single point estimate of emissions, but a range with a mid-point, a lower bound, and an upper bound. The Registry adopts this practice.

Government Release of submitted data

Publication of Net New Reserves needs to become normalized by countries, so that these national totals can be added to find the true global figure for how much new oil and gas is added to global stocks. Regulators already receive this information from companies, as demonstrated by the Energy Information Administration in the United States. It is simply a question of publishing the full, granular data they receive from companies.

Global Registry of Fossil Fuels

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