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Eight of the world’s biggest energy groups have committed to cut methane emissions from their supply chains as part of efforts to promote natural gas as a relatively climate-friendly fuel.

ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total and BP are among those to have signed up to a series of “guiding principles” aimed at reducing releases of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — from leaky wells, pipes and other energy infrastructure. 

Methane leakage has become a flashpoint in the US debate over energy and the environment. President Donald Trump has sought to suspend or cancel rules aimed at curbing emissions that were introduced by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and with the support of the American Petroleum Institute, the new administration is pressing ahead with the deregulatory policy despite setbacks in Congress and in the courts.

The joint corporate initiative, however, highlights a growing recognition within the energy industry that it must tackle methane leakage if it is to secure a role for natural gas as part of the solution to the threat of climate change.

Natural gas emits roughly half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burnt to generate electricity. But the principal component of natural gas is methane, which when released into the atmosphere is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas over 100 years.

Concerns about climate change threaten the long-term business model of large international oil companies, which have invested heavily in gas reserves and infrastructure.

Wednesday’s commitments align Exxon, the largest US oil and gas group, with its biggest European rivals in adopting a more “green” stance than many of its peers. Exxon was often seen as a laggard on climate under the leadership of its former chief executive, Rex Tillerson, now US secretary of state, and its backing for action on methane may signal a change in direction by his successor, Darren Woods. 

Exxon said in a statement that signing up to the international guiding principles demonstrated its commitment to “responsibly managing methane emissions across our operations”. It added that it had launched its own plan to cut leaks in September, and “we are pleased to see other companies joining us in our efforts”.

Other European companies backing the principles are Statoil, Eni, Repsol and Wintershall. Chevron, the second-biggest US oil and gas group, was not on the list.

Chevron did not comment on the new principles, but said it was in its “business interest to minimise fugitive methane and to maximise the volume of natural gas that we can commercialise.” 

Tim Gould of the International Energy Agency, which helped develop the guidelines with industry, said that “credible action to minimise methane emissions” was “essential to the achievement of global climate goals, and to the outlook for natural gas”. 

He added that implementing all of the cost-effective measures to cut leaks worldwide “would have the same effect on long-term climate change as closing all existing coal-fired power plants in China”.

The principles agreed by the signatory companies included “continually reducing methane emissions . . . improving accuracy of methane emissions data, advocating sound policies and regulations on methane emissions, and increasing transparency”. 

Mark Radka, head of energy and climate for UN Environment, the global environment body, said: “Numerous studies have shown the importance of quickly reducing methane emissions if we’re to meet growing energy demand and multiple environmental goals.”

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