(ORDO NEWS) — There is new evidence from orbiting satellites that oil and gas companies are regularly releasing massive amounts of methane into the air.
Methane is the main component of natural gas fuel. It is also a powerful greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide in its warming impact. Thomas Laveau, a researcher at the Laboratory for Climatic and Environmental Sciences in France, says there is a constant discrepancy between official estimates of methane emissions and field observations.
“For many years, every time we got data on methane emissions – we flew over the area, we drove through it – we always found more emissions than we should have seen,” he says.
The researchers turned to satellites in an attempt to get more clarity. The European Space Agency launched an instrument called the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) three years ago that can measure methane in any 12-square-mile patch of the atmosphere day after day.
Lavoe says TROPOMI has detected methane emissions that were not included in official estimates. “No one expects pipelines to sometimes be wide open and release gas into the atmosphere,” he says.
However, this is so. Over the course of two years, in 2019 and 2020, researchers counted more than 1,800 large methane bursts, often emitting several tons of methane per hour. Lavoe and colleagues published their results this week in the journal Science.
The researchers consulted with gas companies in an attempt to understand the source of these “ultraradiant events”. They found that some of the emissions are the result of accidents. However, more often than not, they were deliberate. Gas companies simply bled gas from pipelines or other equipment before carrying out repair or maintenance work.
Lavoe says such emissions could have been avoided. There is equipment that allows you to remove and capture gas before repairs. “It’s quite possible to do that,” he says. “Of course it takes time, resources and personnel. But it’s doable. Absolutely.”
The countries with the most frequent methane bursts included the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, the United States, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Algeria. Lavoe says that in some other countries with large gas industries, such as Saudi Arabia, there have been relatively few such emissions.
The researchers said the large methane emissions they detected accounted for 8-12% of global methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure during that time.
Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, who has focused on the issue of methane emissions, says these massive emissions are dramatic. But it’s important to keep in mind the “normal” leaks that make up the other 90% of emissions from oil and gas facilities. “They really matter,” he says.
EDF plans to launch its own methane detection satellite in about a year, which will take much sharper pictures showing smaller leaks. Other organizations are developing their own methane detectors.
This new monitoring network will change the conversation about methane emissions, says Hamburg. Historically, no one has been able to tell where the methane is coming from, “and that’s one of the reasons we didn’t take the global action that we should have taken. It was just out of sight, out of sight,” says Hamburg. “It won’t happen again. It will be absolutely noticeable.”
He believes this will lead to increased pressure on oil and gas companies to fix these leaks.
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