Detecting methane leaks from space

 Detecting methane leaks from space

Satellites play an increasingly important role in detecting methane leaks from oil exploitation around the world. New satellites, both from government programmes like Copernicus, but also from commercial operators show that methane emissions are on the rise. Satellites can help pinpoint the problem spots with increasing accuracy though, as illustrated by below examples:

Methane emissions from Iraq

On 16 August 2021 Bloomberg reported a large methane cloud in Iraq, that coincided with a gas pipeline leak. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Iraq is one of the biggest emitters of methane in 2020.

The article says that: “Iraq is one of the world’s top oil producers and was the fifth-biggest emitter of methane last year among a selected group of its peers, according to the International Energy Agency. The greenhouse gas is more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth in its first couple decades if released directly into the atmosphere. Stopping leaks is one of the most significant things that can be done right now to slow global warming that’s already reached dangerous levels.

The cloud of methane was detected by Kayrros SAS, a Paris-based geoanalytics firm that parses European Space Agency satellite data to track down emissions. It occurred roughly 140 kilometers (87 miles) west of Basrah, on 20 July 2021. Kayrros estimated the release happened at a rate of 73 tons of methane an hour. It can’t determine the duration of a release based on a single satellite observation.

If the release lasted 24 hours at 180 tons of methane an hour, it would have the same planet-warming impact as the average annual emissions of more than 200,000 cars.”

The Sentinel 5-P satellite can detect methane emissions from space (image: ESA)

Oil production is responsible for around 40% of methane emissions today, with leaks across the natural gas value chain accounting for the remaining 60%. Upstream oil and gas operations lead to more than three-quarters of total emissions. The 7.5 Mt drop in methane emissions in 2020 is equivalent to reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions by around 230 Mt CO2-eq. In the IEA Sustainable Development Scenario, the world requires a steady and rapid decline in emissions for the next 10 years: by 2030, methane emissions are around 70% lower than in 2020. This reduction would be equivalent to eliminating CO2 emissions from all the cars and trucks across Asia.

International Energy Agency (IEA), January 2021

Tracking Fracking

The ‘Tracking Fracking’ article in the Copernicus Observer in February 2021 zoomed in on another source of methane emissions: hydraulic fracturing. One of the largest methane emissions ever measured, in the United States in 2018, was detected from space, using the Copernicus Sentinel 5-P satellite.

The article says that “The role of Copernicus Sentinel-5P is to map a range of atmospheric gases around the globe every 24 hours. Its swath is wide enough to scan the entire surface of the planet every day.

In addition to the Sentinel-5P satellite, there are several other instruments in space that specifically search for greenhouse gas emissions. One of those is the GHGSat which is capable of measuring methane from large industrial facilities around the world.”

Hydraulic Fracturing (‘Fracking’) well in the United States (image: Wikimedia)

Record methane emissions in 2020

In April 2021 an article in the Financial Times reported that “Methane levels in the atmosphere surged during 2020, marking the biggest increase since records began in 1983, in what scientists called a worrying development for the planet.”

Below graph shows the biggest methane emitting countries, with Russia and the United States being the top two, accounting for more than a third of global emissions, and Iraq at number five (source: FT/IEA).

The role of satellites

The 2021 Methane Tracker update includes methane emissions from large-scale leaks detected by satellite for the first time. Globally, around 5.5 Mt of methane emissions were detected by satellites in 2020. This is a drop from the 6.7 Mt of methane emissions that were detected by satellite in 2019. Reductions were seen across a number of regions in 2020, but large levels of emissions were still seen across US shale plays, in Turkmenistan, and from pipelines in the Russian Federation. Conversely, relatively few large leaks were detected across major producers in the Middle East, including Iraq and Kuwait.

Large methane emissions from oil and gas operations detected by satellite in 2020 (IEA)

While satellites provide a way to identify large leaks, they are not going to provide all the answers. Most notably, existing satellites do not provide measurements over equatorial regions, northern areas or for offshore operations. Nevertheless, the urgent need to reduce emissions means that a lack of perfect information should not impede forward progress on introducing abatement measures.

Read more about the role of satellites in this chapter of the 2021 Methane Tracker report.

Remco Timmermans

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