Satellite Data Reveals Major New Methane Gas Leaks Along Pipelines

Artist’s illustration of a concept for NASA’s GeoCarb mission, which will map concentrations of key carbon gases above the Americas from geostationary orbit. Image NASA, Lockheed Martin and U. of Oklahoma

Last fall, satellites operated by the European Space Agency detected enormous methane leaks coming from Yamal pipeline that carries natural gas from Siberia to Europe. As Reuters reported, it was estimated that one leak alone was releasing 93 tons of methane every hour, meaning the daily emissions from the leakage were equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide pumped out in a year by 15,000 cars in the United States.

  • The find, which has not been reported, is part of a growing effort by companies, academics and some energy producers to use space-age technology to find the biggest methane leaks as the potent heat-trapping gas builds up rapidly in the atmosphere.

About 60% of atmospheric methane comes from sources scientists think of as human-caused. It’s a potent greenhouse gas whose emissions we can work to limit.

Why This Matters: Traditionally regulators have relied on oil and gas companies to report pipeline leaks. As a result, estimates of methane leaks by regulatory bodies have vastly underestimated the true scope of what’s actually happening. In fact, humans are responsible for as much as 40% more methane emissions than previously estimated. New satellite technology is helping the industry and NGOs get a much more accurate idea of where leaks are happening and how big they are.

In the United States, there have been calls to use stimulus funding to employ out of work oil and gas workers to help plug methane leaks and fill abandoned wells. So long as we’re dependent on natural gas, we must work to ensure pipeline operators and utilities prevent leaks and accurately disclose information.

Satellite Detection: As Reuters explained in their reporting, the push to detect emissions from the sky began when U.S. advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund and universities including Harvard used aerial measurements to show methane leaks from America’s oil and gas heartland were 60% above inventories reported to the EPA.

  • A year later, the Canadian greenhouse gas monitoring company GHGSat found another major leak at pipeline and compressor infrastructure near the Korpezhe field in Turkmenistan.
  • Now, the more recent ESA discovery has added to the evidence that undetected methane leaks from the energy industry are a global issue – and a major one.

Energy consultancy Kayrros, who detected the leaks using ESA satellite data, also discovered oil and gas installations in the Sahara Desert in North Africa.

Going Forward: Using satellites to detect methane leaks will be used by a growing group of nations. For instance, NASA has a planned satellite called GeoCarb that will launch around 2023 to provide geostationary space-based observations of methane in the atmosphere over much of the western hemisphere.

Additionally, Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (Tropomi), is a package of state-of-the-art sensors launched by the European Space Agency which will map emissions planetwide every 24 hours and to show pollutants in higher resolution than ever before.

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