Orbiting satellites have collected new evidence showing that oil and gas companies are routinely venting huge amounts of methane into the air.
Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas, fuel. Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide in its warming impact.
Thomas Lauvaux, a researcher with the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France, says 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.
The European Space Agency launched an instrument three years ago called the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) that measures methane in any 12-square-mile block of the atmosphere, day by day.
“No one expects that pipelines are sometimes wide open, pouring gas into the atmosphere,” Lauvaux said.
According to the researchers, the large releases of methane that they detected accounted for 8-12% of global methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure during that time.
Steven Hamburg, who is chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, which focuses on the problem of methane emissions, says these massive releases are dramatic. But it’s also important to remember the “Ordinary” leaks that make up 90% of emissions from oil and gas facilities.
EDF is planning to launch its own methane detecting satellite that will be able to take sharper pictures that will show smaller leaks. He thinks that will help put more pressure on oil and gas companies to fix those leaks.