- By Esme Stallard, Owen Pinnell and Jess Kelly
- BBC News
Big oil companies are not reporting significant greenhouse gas emissions, a BBC News investigation has found.
The BBC has uncovered millions of tonnes of undisclosed emissions from gas flared at oil fields operated by BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell.
Natural gas flaring consists of “unnecessary” burning of excess gas released during oil production.
Companies said their reporting method was standard industry practice.
Burned gases release a potent mixture of carbon dioxide, methane and black soot, which pollutes the air and accelerates global warming.
Iraqi communities near gas-flaring oil fields have high levels of cancer-causing chemicals, the BBC has found. Based on our findings, these sectors have the highest number of unreported burns in the world.
In response, David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, likened these societies to “modern sacrificial zones, zones where profit and private interests take precedence over human health, human rights and the environment”.
Organizations have long recognized the need to eliminate explosions, except in emergencies.
BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell have announced commitments made by the World Bank in 2015 by 2030 and, in Shell’s case, by 2025.
But companies say that if they contract with another company to handle day-to-day operations, the latter is responsible for reporting explosive emissions.
These deposits make up a significant portion of oil production – they represent an average of 50% of the portfolios of these five companies.
However, after months of investigation, the BBC found dozens of oilfields whose operators were also not reporting emissions, meaning no one.
Using satellite data from the World Bank’s flare monitoring, we were able to trace emissions from each of these sites. We estimate that by 2021, nearly 20 million tons of CO2 equivalents will go unreported from these combustions. This is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions produced by 4.4 million cars in a year.
In response, all five companies stated that the approach of reporting only emissions from sites where they directly operate is standard industry practice.
Shell and Eni provided a total emissions figure, including emissions from flaring from undeveloped sites, but that number was not broken down or included in their World Bank emissions reduction pledge.
A study conducted by BBC News Arab found that burning increases the risk of some types of cancer in people living near oil fields in Iraq.
Residents of the world’s largest oil fields in Basra, southeastern Iraq – Rumaila, West Qurna, Jubair and Nahran Omar – have long suspected the rise in childhood leukemia is to blame.
In the Basra region, new cases of all types of cancer increased by 20% between 2015 and 2018, according to a leaked Iraqi health ministry report seen by BBC News Arabic. It blames air pollution.
BP and Eni are the main contractors for the Rumaila and Jubair oil fields respectively, but because they are not operators, they do not report emissions. Neither are the operators of the sites.
BBC News Arab spent two weeks in 2021 working with environmental and health experts near four sites to test for carcinogenic chemicals linked to combustion.
Air studies indicated that levels of benzene, linked to leukemia and other blood disorders, met or exceeded Iraqi national limits in at least four locations.
Urine samples taken from 52 children revealed that 70% had high levels of 2-naphthol, a form of naphthalene, a carcinogen.
Dr Manuela Orjuela-Grimm, a professor of childhood cancer at Columbia University, said: “Children have surprisingly high doses… It’s concerning. [leur] health and suggests that they should be closely monitored.”
At the age of 11, Fatima Falah Najem was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood and bone cancer. Exposure to benzene increases the risk of developing this disease.
Fatima lived with her parents and six siblings near the Jubair oil field, of which Eni is the main contractor.
Neither Eni nor the Zubair operating company emits emissions at this location.
For health reasons, Iraqi law prohibits burning within 10 kilometers of homes.
But a mile from the family’s front door, the Zubair blaze burns almost continuously.
Fatima painted the “burning flames” that surrounded her home during her chemotherapy treatment.
She told us she loved seeing them at night and eventually normalizing them.
But for her father, seeing her sick was “like a fire that couldn’t be put out”.
Last November, Fatima died as her family sought a bone marrow transplant. She is 13 years old.
Asked about his response, Eni said he “strongly rejects any allegation that his own actions endanger the health of the Iraqi people.”
Eni said it had no contractual liability to burn about Zubair.
According to BBC calculations, the Rumaila oil field, 40km away, flares more gas than any other site in the world, enough to power nearly three million UK homes a year.
BP is the main contractor – it helped set up and now oversees the operator, Rumaila Operating Organization (ROO). Neither of them said the oil field was burning.
The ROO’s operational standards, to which BP is a signatory, state that “those affected by pollution levels exceeding national limits are legally entitled to compensation”.
But 19-year-old leukemia survivor Ali Hussain Juloot says he and his father were kept silent when they asked BP for compensation in 2020 and 2021.
“We are very concerned about the issues raised by the BBC – we will address these concerns immediately,” said Bibb.
“We have instructed all the contracting companies operating in the oil fields to meet international standards,” Iraqi Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar Ismail says of the cancer report leaked from Basra in the region.
According to figures from the International Energy Agency, if all the natural gas burning in the world were captured and used, Russia could replace more than nine-tenths of Europe’s gas imports.
According to the World Bank, gas capture can be upfront expensive and technically difficult. It is estimated that stopping proper burning would cost up to 100 billion dollars (67 trillion 448 billion 283 million FCFA).
But Mark Davies, chief executive of Capterio, which advises oil companies on gas capture, told the BBC that countries such as Norway have shown it is possible with regulation.
Additional support: Becky Dale and Christine Jeevens (data and analysis).
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