- Esme Stallard, Owen Pinnell and Jess Kelly
- BBC News
Major oil companies are not declaring a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, a BBC News investigation has revealed.
The BBC discovered millions of tonnes of undeclared emissions from flaring gas in oil fields where BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell operate.
The burning of natural gas, known as flaringis the “wasteful” burning of excess gas released during oil production.
The companies said their reporting method was standard industry practice.
The gases from the burning emit a potent mixture of carbon dioxide, methane and black soot that pollute the air and accelerate global warming.
The BBC also found high levels of potentially carcinogenic chemicals in Iraqi communities close to flaring oil fields. These fields have some of the highest levels of flaring undeclared world, according to our findings.
In response, David Boyd, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, compared these communities to “modern sacrifice zones, areas where profit and private interests are prioritized over human health, human rights and the environment”.
Companies have long recognized the need to eliminate everything but emergency burning.
BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell have committed to the World Bank’s 2015 target of declaring and eliminating routine flaring by 2030 — in Shell’s specific case, by 2025.
But companies say that when they hire another company to run day-to-day operations, it is the responsibility of that other company to report emissions from the flaring.
These fields are a large part of the oil production — representing, on average, 50% of the portfolio of these five companies.
However, over months of analysis, the BBC has found dozens of oil fields where these operators are also not reporting emissions, meaning no one is.
Using satellite data from the World Bank’s gas flaring monitoring, we were able to identify emissions from each of these locations. We estimate that by 2021, almost 20 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from these burns have not been reported. This corresponds to the greenhouse gas emissions that 4.4 million cars would produce in a year.
In response, all five companies said the approach of reporting emissions only from locations where they directly operate was standard industry practice.
Shell and Eni further stated that they provide an overall emissions figure that includes flaring from sites where they do not operate, but stated that this is not broken down or included in their World Bank target to reduce emissions.
An investigation by the BBC’s Arabic news service indicates that flaring the gas increases the risk of some cancers for people living near Iraq’s oil fields.
People who live in some of the world’s biggest oil fields in Basra, southeastern Iraq — Rumaila, West Qurna, Zubair and Nahran Omar — have long suspected that childhood leukemia is on the rise and that gas flaring is behind it. from that.
In the Basra region, new cases of all cancers rose by 20% between 2015 and 2018, according to a leaked Iraqi Ministry of Health report, which the BBC’s Arabic news service had access to. The document blames air pollution.
BP and Eni are the main contractors in the Rumaila and Zubair oil fields, respectively, but as they are not the operators, they do not report emissions. Neither do the operators.
The BBC’s Arabic service worked with environment and health experts near the four sites in 2021 to carry out tests for cancer-causing chemicals associated with burning gas for two weeks.
Air analyzes indicated that benzene levels, linked to leukemia and other blood disorders, reached or exceeded Iraq’s national limit in at least four places.
Urine samples collected from 52 children indicated that 70% had elevated levels of 2-naphthol, a form of the possibly carcinogen naphthalene.
“Children have surprisingly high levels… this is worrying for their health and suggests that they should be closely monitored,” says Dr Manuela Orjuela-Grimm, a professor specializing in childhood cancer at Columbia University in the US.
At age 11, Fatima Falah Najem was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Exposure to benzene can increase people’s risk of developing this condition.
Fatima lived with her parents and six siblings near the Zubair oil field, where Eni is the main contractor.
Neither Eni nor the operating company of Zubair report emissions from flaring gas there.
For health reasons, Iraqi law prohibits burning gas within 10 km of people’s homes.
But the flames in Zubair burn almost continuously, just 2.5 kilometers from the family’s front door.
Fatima drew the “burning flames” that surrounded her home during her chemotherapy treatment.
She told us that she liked to observe them at night, normalizing them.
But for her father, seeing her get sick was “like being on fire and not being able to put it out.”
Fatima died last November as her family desperately sought a bone marrow transplant. She was 13 years old.
When we asked for a response, Eni said it “strongly rejects any claim that its own activities are endangering the health of the Iraqi people.”
Eni stated that it is contractually not responsible for the gas flaring at Zubair.
The Rumaila oil field, 40 kilometers away, burns more gas than anywhere else in the world, according to BBC calculations – enough to power nearly three million UK homes a year.
BP is the prime contractor — it helped establish and now oversees the operator, the Rumaila Operating Organization (ROO). Neither declares any flaring of oil field gas.
The ROO’s operational standards, which BP signed off on, say: “Those who are impacted by pollution levels that exceed national limits are legally entitled to compensation.”
But Ali Hussein Julood, a 19-year-old leukemia survivor, says he and his father were met with silence when they asked BP for compensation in 2020 and 2021.
BP said: “We are extremely concerned about the issues raised by the BBC – we will immediately review those concerns.”
Regarding the leaked report on cancer in the Basra region, Iraqi Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar Ismail told us: “We instruct all contractors operating in the oil fields to respect international standards.”
If all the natural gas flared globally were captured and used, it could replace more than nine-tenths of Europe’s gas imports from Russia, based on data from the International Energy Agency.
Capturing the gas can initially be expensive and technically difficult, according to the World Bank. The organization estimates that ending all routine burning could cost up to $100 billion.
But Mark Davis, chief executive of Capterio, which advises oil companies on capturing flared gas, told the BBC that countries like Norway have shown that this is possible with the help of strong regulation.
Additional Contribution by: Becky Dale and Christine Jeavans (Data & Analysis)
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