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A satellite finds massive methane leaks from gas pipelines

GARDEN CITY, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Flared natural gas is burned off at Apache Corporations operations at the Deadwood natural gas plant in the Permian Basin on February 5, 2015 in Garden City, Texas. Apache sends an estimated 50-52 million cubic feet of natural gas to this plant per day. As crude oil prices have fallen nearly 60 percent globally, American communities dependent on oil revenue prepare for hard times. Texas, which benefited from hydraulic fracturing and the shale drilling revolution, tripled its production of oil in the last five years. The Texan economy saw hundreds of billions of dollars come into the state before the global plunge in prices. Across the state drilling budgets are being slashed and companies are notifying workers of upcoming layoffs. According to federal labor statistics, around 300,000 people work in the Texas oil and gas industry, 50 percent more than four years ago. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Flared natural gas is burned off at a natural gas plant. Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, can leak from natural gas plants and pipelines.

There's new evidence, collected from orbiting satellites, that oil and gas companies are routinely venting huge amounts of methane into the air.Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas, the fuel. It's also a powerful greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide in its warming impact. And Thomas Lauvaux, a researcher with the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, in France, says that there's been a persistent discrepancy between official estimates of methane emissions and field observations."For years, every time we had data [on methane emissions] - we were flying over an area, we were driving around, we always found more emissions than we were supposed to see," he says.Researchers turned to satellites in an effort to get more clarity. The European Space Agency launched an instrument three years ago, called the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument(TROPOMI), that can measure the methane in any 12-square-mile block of the atmosphere, day by day. Lauvaux says that TROPOMI detected methane releases that the official estimates did not foresee. "No one expects that pipelines are sometimes wide open, pouring gas into the atmosphere," he says. Yet they were. Over the course of two years, during 2019 and 2020, the researchers counted more than 1800 large bursts of methane, often releasing several tons of methane per hour. Lauvaux and his colleagues published their findings this week in the journal Science. The researchers consulted with gas companies, trying to understand the source of these "ultra-emitting events." They found that some releases resulted from accidents. More often, though, they were deliberate. Gas companies simply vented gas from pipelines or other equipment before carrying out repairs or maintenance operations. Lauvaux says these releases could be avoided. There's equipment that allows gas to be removed and captured before repairs. "It can totally be done," he says. "It takes time, for sure; resources and staff. But it's do-able. Absolutely."The countries where bursts of methane happened most frequently included the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, Russia, the United States, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Algeria. Lauvaux says they found relatively few such releases in some other countries with big gas industries, such as Saudi Arabia.According to the researchers, the large releases of methane that they detected accounted for eight to twelve percent of global methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure during that time. Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has focused on the problem of methane emissions, says that these massive releases are dramatic. But it's also important to remember the "ordinary" leaks that make up the other 90 percent of emissions from oil and gas facilities. "They really matter!" he says.EDF is planning to launch its own methane-detecting satellite in about a year, which will take much sharper pictures, showing smaller leaks. Other organizations are developing their own methane detectors. That new monitoring network will transform the conversation about methane emissions, Hamburg says. Historically, no one could tell where methane was coming from, "and that's part of the reason we haven't taken, globally, the action that we should. It was just out of sight, out of mind," Hamburg says. "Well, it no longer will be. It will be totally visible."He thinks that will translate into more pressure on oil and gas companies to fix those leaks. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.