Last year, European Space Agency satellites detected huge plumes of the invisible planet-warming gas methane leaking from the Yamal pipeline that carries natural gas from Siberia to Europe. Energy consultancy Kayrros estimated one leak was spewing out 93 tonnes 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 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, says a Reuters report. Kayrros, which is analysing the satellite data, said another leak nearby was gushing at a rate of 17 tonnes an hour and that it had informed Yamal’s operator Gazprom about its findings this month.
Up to now, estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from industries have relied mainly on paper-based calculations of what’s pouring out of tailpipes and smokestacks, based on the amount of energy consumed by people and businesses.
But as satellite technology improves, researchers are starting to stress test the data – and the early results show leaky oil and gas industry infrastructure is responsible for far more of the methane in the atmosphere than previously thought.
Such a revelation would heap pressure on energy companies – already targeted by climate activists and investors for their contribution to carbon dioxide emissions – to find and plug methane leaks.
The new satellite discoveries of methane leaks could also lead to more stringent regulatory regimes targeting natural gas, once seen as a “clean” fossil fuel, as governments seek to combat climate change, experts say.
While scientists generally agree that calculating emissions based on consumption works well for carbon dioxide, it is less reliable for methane, which is prone to unexpected leaks. Methane is also 80 times more potent during its first 20 years in the atmosphere and scientists say that identifying methane sources is crucial to making the drastic emissions cuts needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.