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* GRAPHIC-Global methane intensity: https://tmsnrt.rs/318gDAX
* Methane emission estimates by country: https://tmsnrt.rs/2Yx4aou
* GRAPHIC-Russian methane emissions estimates: https://tmsnrt.rs/3ex9wG7
* GRAPHIC-Sources of Russian methane: https://tmsnrt.rs/2Z0ZO8p
By Shadia Nasralla
LONDON, June 26 (Reuters) – Last fall, European Space Agency satellites detected huge plumes of the invisible planet-warming gas methane leaking from the Yamal pipeline that carries natural gas from Siberia to Europe.
Energy consultancy Kayrros estimated one leak was spewing out 93 tonnes of methane every hour, meaning the daily emissions from the leakage were equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide pumped out in a year by 15,000 cars in the United States.
The find, which has not been reported, is part of a growing effort by companies, academics and some energy producers to use space-age technology to find the biggest methane leaks as the potent heat-trapping gas builds up rapidly in the atmosphere.
Kayrros, which is analysing the satellite data, said another leak nearby was gushing at a rate of 17 tonnes an hour and that it had informed Yamal’s operator Gazprom about its findings this month.
Gazprom did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the leaks identified by Kayrros.
Up to now, estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from industries have relied mainly on paper-based calculations of what’s pouring out of tailpipes and smokestacks, based on the amount of energy consumed by people and businesses.
But as satellite technology improves, researchers are starting to stress test the data – and the early results show leaky oil and gas industry infrastructure is responsible for far more of the methane in the atmosphere than previously thought.
Such a revelation would heap pressure on energy companies – already targeted by climate activists and investors for their contribution to carbon dioxide emissions – to find and plug methane leaks.
The new satellite discoveries of methane leaks could also lead to more stringent regulatory regimes targeting natural gas, once seen as a “clean” fossil fuel, as governments seek to combat climate change, experts say.
While scientists generally agree that calculating emissions based on consumption works well for carbon dioxide, it is less reliable for methane, which is prone to unexpected leaks.
Methane is also 80 times more potent during its first 20 years in the atmosphere and scientists say that identifying methane sources is crucial to making the drastic emissions cuts needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
“What this now shows is that the avoidance of that fossil leakage actually can have a larger impact than what was anticipated earlier,” said Imperial College London climate scientist Joeri Rogelj, who is one of the authors for reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
A study in February’s Nature magazine reinforced the idea that the oil and gas industry produces far more methane than previously thought as it suggested emissions of the gas from natural causes have been significantly overestimated.
The findings don’t let farming off the hook – it’s still responsible for a quarter of the methane in the atmosphere – but they suggest mud volcanoes and natural oil and gas seepages have been taking some of the heat for the energy industry’s leaks.
Some big oil and gas companies such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell are tackling the issue by investing in satellite companies or signing monitoring deals so they can find and plug their leaks and stick to pledges to slash emissions.
The push to detect emissions from the sky began when U.S. advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and universities including Harvard used aerial measurements to show methane leaks from America’s oil and gas heartland were 60% above inventories reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That 2018 report was pivotal, said Christophe McGlade, a senior researcher at the International Energy Agency (IEA).
“What they found from actual ground and aerial measurements is that the engineering-based approach can really underestimate total emissions,” he said. “Maybe if emissions were higher in the United States than previous estimates, maybe they were higher in other parts of the world too?”