Massive Methane Leaks by the Oil & Gas Industry Detected from Space

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An international study involving researchers from CNRS and CEA as well as the company Kayrros reveals hundreds of major methane leaks linked to the global exploitation of oil and gas. Scientists show that their mitigation would lead to climatic and economic benefits amounting to billions of dollars for the main hydrocarbon producing countries. This work is published on February 4, 2022 in the journal Science.

​A major contributor to climate change, methane (CH 4 ) has a warming potential over 100 years approximately 30 times greater than that of CO 2. A quarter of anthropogenic emissions of this greenhouse gas come from the global exploitation of coal, oil and natural gas, of which CH4 is the main component. In 2018, a study had already exposed, based on the case of the United States, the vast underestimation in official inventories of emissions related to the extraction and distribution of oil and gas. A discrepancy which could be explained by sporadic undeclared releases of large quantities of methane by operators in the sector.

For the first time, an international research team, led by the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences (CNRS/CEA/UVSQ) and associated with the company Kayrros, quantified worldwide the most abundant methane emissions released into the atmosphere by the hydrocarbon sector. These may be accidental discharges or related to maintenance operations which lead to very large leaks. For this, the researchers systematically analyzed thousands of images produced daily for two years by ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite. They thus mapped 1,800 methane plumes across the globe, 1,200 of which were attributed to the exploitation of hydrocarbons. They estimate that these “leaks” have a climate impact comparable to that of the circulation of 20 million vehicles for a year.

Carte des émetteurs. Map showing the location of the main gas pipelines and the main sources of methane emissions related to the oil and gas industry © Kayrros Inc., Esri, HERE, Garmin, FAO, NOAA, USGS, OpenStreetMap contributors, and the GIS User Community

Corresponding to 10% of the estimated emissions from the sector, these observations are only the tip of the iceberg, as the satellite is only capable of systematically detecting the most massive plumes, which are also the most intermittent (more of 25 tons of CH 4 per hour). The study shows that these massive releases are not random and chaotic, but detected systematically above certain oil and gas extraction sites. The observation of these discharges, which depend on the protocols followed during maintenance operations and the responsiveness to accidental leaks, shows that the regulations put in place by States and companies play a major role.

But would plugging these “leaks” be so costly for operators to justify such practices? By taking into account the societal costs underlying the impacts on climate and air quality as well as the price of lost gas, the study shows on the contrary that limiting them would be synonymous with billions of dollars of net savings for the countries responsible for it. This work thus emphasizes the need to introduce a reliable atmospheric monitoring system that would make it possible both to systematically monitor emissions and to estimate the impact of local measures aimed at reducing them.

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