Satellite data offers new hope for taming oil’s methane emissions

According to the International Energy Agency, the oil and gas industry could reduce its worldwide methane emissions by 75% using existing technologies. [Tim Hurst / Flickr]

The release of methane emissions from drilling has been a beguiling problem for the oil and gas industry. But EU satellite data points toward a solution.

In the global fight against climate change, cutting carbon dioxide emissions have been the main focus. This makes sense, given that CO2 represents the majority of greenhouse gases that contribute to the problem.

But methane emissions are responsible for at least a quarter of global warming, according to scientists. And it over 80 times more powerful than CO2 even though it doesn’t stay as long in the atmosphere.

Methane emissions come from all kinds of sources, including, most famously, cow flatulence. But one of the most problematic sources, and perhaps the one that could be most easily tackled, is the methane that is released into the atmosphere during oil and gas extraction.

Not only do these fossil fuels emit CO2 when they are burned to make energy, they also release methane into the air when they come out of the earth. Methane can also be emitted from abandoned wells.

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Getting a grip on methane emissions

The methane can represent a broader problem because not only does it contribute to warming, it also helps to form ground-level ozone, an air pollutant that is responsible for approximately one million deaths each year.

The figures are big. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the fossil fuel industry emitted 76 megatonnes of methane in 2017. 60% of that is estimated to be man-made, the majority of that from agriculture.

It all sounds like bad news, but as scientists become more aware of the particular qualities of methane, it is also becoming clear that it could be much easier to reduce these emissions than CO2. And it could have a faster and more significant impact in slowing global temperature rise than reducing CO2 does.

According to the IEA, the oil and gas industry could reduce its emissions by 75% if it got a handle on methane emissions. Most incredibly, two-thirds of that reduction would be at zero net cost to the industry. That’s because all those methane gas emissions represent a loss of revenue for oil and gas majors. It’s estimated that about 3% of global natural gas production is lost into the air.

Last year, 13 of the world’s leading oil and gas producers signed a pledge to limit methane emissions to 0.25% of their total marketed product by 2025. The members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative would see average methane intensity cut to a quarter of a percentage point across global operations, with a stated ambition to go as far as 0.2%. The initiative said in a statement that it expects about 350,000 tonnes of methane per year to be prevented from escaping into the atmosphere if the target is met.

But finding a way to reduce these methane emissions has been a problem, because it has been difficult to determine where the leaks are occurring.

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Satellite tools

Now, experts at the European Union’s Copernicus satellite observation program think they’ve discovered the trick to let oil and gas companies know exactly where those methane leaks are happening, and how to invest in stopping them.

At last week’s Sustainable Energy Week summit in Brussels, experts from the Earth Observation programme came together with energy sector people to discuss the new data available through Copernicus for the monitoring and forecasting of methane emissions.

Heinrich Bovesmann, managing director for research at the Institute of Environmental Physics in Bremen, noted that the data the satellites will provide will be crucial for companies if they want to take measures to reduce methane emissions.

“As long as we have no measurement data to measures emissions rates, we can’t do anything,” he said.

Elisabeth Hambouch, deputy head of the Copernicus unit at the European Commission, said the same goes for policy-makers. But the data is increasingly there for them to take action on methane emissions. “The program is just an information tool, it’s up to the policy-makers how they’re going to use it,” she said.

One of the difficulties for companies in detecting methane releases is that because of wind they can quickly travel to another area, making it difficult to establish where they originated. The satellite observation tools available through Copernicus make it possible to pinpoint where the leak came from, so that companies can go about making it stop.

Methane: Europe’s chronic climate blind spot

Europe has long led the global charge against greenhouse gas pollution. But it has been chronically reluctant to address the climate impact of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, writes Poppy Kalesi.

Bill Hirst, a principal scientist for atmospheric monitoring with Shell Global Solutions, explained that when the gas is emitted from one place and travels to another place, in the past it has also been difficult to exactly how much came out from where. But now an emission rate can be calculated to determine how much came out of the ground.

The monitoring system isn’t yet perfect. For instance, it currently has difficulty detecting methane over the ocean because it’s a dark surface. Only when the sun is shining and there is sun glint on the water can the emissions completely be seen. But efforts are being made to overcome this hurdle.

Hirst said he would advise policy-makers to take advantage of the satellite data that is becoming available, because reducing methane emissions represents low-hanging fruit in the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“I would put everything on reducing methane emissions,” he said. “Its life in the atmosphere is about nine years, and for CO2 it’s centuries. If I waved a magic wand right now and could cut CO2 immediately, I wouldn’t see the benefits for a century. But if I cut methane emissions, just the man-made ones, I could cut within a few half-lives.”

The European Union already has strategies in place to tackle methane emissions from waste. But reduce the amount of methane emitted by accident in the oil and gas extraction process could be a win-win for both the climate and these companies’ bottom lines.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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