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Views from space reveal huge methane leaks in the US and Asia. They could be easy spots to cut emissions and save money.

A natural gas flare on an oil-well pad burns as the sun sets outside Watford City, North Dakota, January 21, 2016.

Andrew Cullen/Reuters

  • A global map of methane emissions reveals that pipelines release tons of the potent greenhouse gas.
  • Satellite images captured large methane plumes from fossil-fuel infrastructure on a daily basis.
  • Methane hotspots in the US and western Asia could be low-hanging fruit for cutting emissions.

A new map of global methane plumes reveals pipelines are spilling far more of the powerful pollutant — possibly twice as much — than countries are reporting.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with a heat-trapping capacity 30 times higher than carbon dioxide, even though it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere. It’s one of the main gases driving global warming.

An estimated one-quarter of humans’ methane emissions come from extracting coal, oil, and natural gas for fuel. Occasionally, the wells and pipelines that carry that fuel will experience a major leak.

But a new planet-wide map, based on thousands of satellite images, reveals that fossil-fuel operations are secretly leaking far more methane than researchers thought, and they’re doing it on a daily basis.

satellite image show green methane plume in the southern united statesA satellite image shows a methane plume over the United States on September 25, 2019.

Kayrros, Inc.; Esri, HERE, Garmin, FAO, NOAA, USGS, © OpenStreetMap contributors, and the GIS User Community

“We didn’t realize initially that every day we would find these giant emitters around the globe,” Thomas Lauvaux, a researcher studying greenhouse-gas emissions at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), who led the mapping effort, told Insider.

“It’s leaking everywhere,” he added, “and we’re not doing a good job.”

Lauvaux led an international team of researchers to analyze two years of daily data from Europe’s Sentinel-5P satellite, from 2019 through 2020. The view from space revealed 1,800 methane plumes. Most of these hotspots — 1,200 of them, primarily in the US and western Asia — are linked to fossil-fuel extraction operations, like oil and gas pipelines.

world map shows oil gas pipelines with clusters of orange dots representing major methane emissionsBlue lines show the main gas pipelines. Orange dots depict sources of methane emissions.

© Kayrros Inc., Esri, HERE, Garmin, FAO, NOAA, USGS, OpenStreetMap contributors, and the GIS User Community

“We thought it would happen once in a while, and they were very specific events in specific places, accidental mostly,” Lauvaux said, adding, “Not at all. They’re very systematic. They come back a lot along the infrastructure: pipelines and compressor stations and wells.”

He suspects that many of these methane plumes come from routine maintenance.

“They open the valves, and the methane and natural gas blow out, and in the meantime, they can fix whatever they have to fix,” he said.

Lauvaux’s team consists of researchers from CNRS, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), and the data-analytics company Kayrros. Their study was published in the journal Science on Thursday.

Based on this and a series of prior studies that have measured methane at particular sites, Lauvaux roughly estimates that human activities could be emitting twice as much methane as governments report.

The methane map is ‘scary,’ but it represents a big opportunity

yellow gas pipeline above worker in blue jumpsuit in snowA worker walks past part of a gas pipeline at a compressor station in Amur region, Russia, November 29, 2019.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The methane plumes in the new map have a warming effect on Earth’s atmosphere that’s comparable to 20 million additional vehicles on the road for one year, according to the study.

“It’s a little scary,” Lauvaux said, adding, “Very few leaks are responsible for a huge amount of methane.”

But it also presents an opportunity: If governments and fossil-fuel companies stop these few major leaks, it will make a big dent in their emissions. It’s low-hanging fruit, Lauvaux said, and stopping routine leaks could even save companies money.

In the US, ultra-emitters could save $250 per ton of methane if they eliminate routine leaks, the researchers calculated.

The US, Turkmenistan, Russia, and Iran are some of the biggest culprits on Lauvaux’s map. He was surprised to find relatively few methane flares in oil states like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq. He’s not sure why — that’s a subject for future research. 

Still, Lauvaux’s team estimated that their map represents just one-tenth of the fossil-fuel industry’s total methane emissions. These are just the biggest plumes, releasing more than 25 metric tons of methane per hour. There are surely many smaller plumes that the satellite can’t detect.

What’s more, Lauvaux had to leave the Permian Basin — a major US gas field — out of his analysis, because the baseline methane levels there were too high to detect individual plumes.

“We have more work to do than we imagine,” Lauvaux said, adding, “That’s for sure.”

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