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Cracking down on methane ‘ultra emitters’ is a quick way to combat climate change, researchers find

Latest study underscores how satellites are exposing emission sources around the globe. ‘It’s a harbinger of what’s to come,’ one expert says.

President Biden announced new rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas production on Nov. 2 at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. (Video: The Washington Post)

A growing constellation of methane-detecting satellites is giving researchers new and disturbing insights into “super emitters” around the globe — from pipelines in Russia to North America’s oil fields.

But as the reams of data reveal the depth of the problem, they also have made clear a potential tool to combat climate change, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science. Reducing the number of incidents that release massive amounts of this potent climate pollutant is a low-cost, high-impact way that countries and corporations can help to slow Earth’s warming.

“These are really, really big events. These are the kinds of things that should just never be happening,” said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund who was not involved in the study but has long conducted research on methane, the world’s second-most-prevalent greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide.

A group of scientists from France and the United States analyzed hundreds of large-emitting events between 2019 and 2020, using data collected by a European Space Agency satellite that orbits the planet 14 times a day. The new study concludes that super-emitting events represent 8 to 12 percent of global methane emissions from oil and gas operations — emissions that are not included in most national greenhouse gas inventories.

The researchers documented enormous releases around the globe, primarily from fossil fuel operations in places such as Russia, Turkmenistan and Iran, as well as in the United States and parts of the Middle East.

Hamburg said reducing such disastrous leaks, known as “super” or “ultra” emitters, amounts to “low-hanging fruit” in the quest to mitigate the worsening impacts of global warming.

Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril

Finding ways to eliminate such colossal and unnecessary leaks, whether they result from damaged pipelines or shoddy maintenance practices, the authors write, could yield economic benefits and would produce clear climate and health benefits for relatively low costs. They calculate that eradicating ultra-emitters would represent the equivalent of removing 20 million vehicles from the road for a year, and the avoided warming would prevent an estimated 1,600 deaths annually due to heat exposure.

“This is likely to be among the very most cost-effective methane reductions you can get,” said Drew Shindell, a Duke University earth science professor and co-author of Thursday’s study. “This is somewhere, in principle, where we should be able to make rapid and substantial progress.”

While carbon dioxide is much more abundant, methane is far more effective at trapping heat — roughly 80 times more potent in its first decade in the atmosphere. That means reducing methane pollution in the near term could provide a relatively quick route to slow the planet’s warming. And yet, concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have been rising sharply in recent years.

The proliferation of remote-sensing satellites is helping scientists to better understand why.

How satellites could help hold countries to emissions promises

The French firm Kayrros has in recent years used data from Europe’s Sentinel-5P to document a range of super-emitters, from a large leaking landfill in Bangladesh to sizable methane plumes over gas fields in Canada and Appalachian coal mines.

The kind of systematic, global analysis that underpins Thursday’s study “is a giant step towards overcoming the current limitations of the methane reporting system, which is critical to meeting COP26 commitments to slash methane,” Alexandre d’Aspremont, Kayrros co-founder and scientific director, said in a statement.

Shindell said such evolving technology, and the ability to quickly analyze vast amounts of satellite data, is “beginning to revolutionize our understanding” about the sources of emissions. “And with the next generation of satellites, we should be able to get to a next tier down of smaller and more distributed sources,” such as livestock operations, smaller landfills and specific oil and gas sites. “I think it’s going to make a big difference,” he added.

That next generation is around the corner.

Next year, the Environmental Defense Fund plans to launch MethaneSat, a system designed to identify methane emissions across a broad geographic area, as well as measure leaks at predetermined locations. The group says the satellite will be able to regularly monitor regions that account for more than 80 percent of global oil and gas production.

California last year announced Carbon Mapper, a public-private partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Earth observation firm Planet, which plans to launch satellites into orbit to track greenhouse gas emissions. And NASA plans in 2024 to launch the Geostationary Carbon Observatory, or GeoCarb — a satellite that will be perched 22,000 miles above the Americas and will collect millions of daily observations about concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases.

Swift action to cut methane emissions could slow Earth’s warming by 30 percent

Hamburg said the new findings highlight how cracking down on ultra-emitters is an important piece in the broader goal of reducing global methane emissions, which President Biden and other leaders have vowed to prioritize between now and 2030.

“But we have to be careful to not say this is the whole problem,” he said.

The bulk of methane emissions from oil and gas comes from less dramatic but more persistent parts of the system, he said — leaking wells, faulty flares and other infrastructure that collectively have an even more detrimental climate footprint.

“It’s necessary to do, but it’s not sufficient,” he said of stopping only the biggest leaks. “It’s only a small slice of a very large opportunity.”

And as remote-sensing technology expands and improves, opportunities to target methane sources large and small should only grow.

“It’s a harbinger of what’s to come,” he said of the paper. “Two years from now, we’ll be doing this in a much more robust way, with numerous satellites, in a much more robust system. Right now, we are seeing just one part of the elephant, but we still need to see the whole thing.”

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