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Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril

On the morning of Friday, June 4, an underground gas pipeline running through the ancient state of Tatarstan sprang a leak. And not a small one.

In a different era, the massive leak might have gone unnoticed.

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But hovering 520 miles above the Earth, a European Space Agency satellite was keeping watch. The four-year-old Copernicus Sentinel-5P, which orbits the planet 14 times a day, looks for traces of methane and other gases.

At 11:01 a.m. in Moscow, the satellite spotted a methane leak on the edge of its field of vision.

On its next pass, 1 hour and 40 minutes later, the sensor captured an even larger view of the leak.

Crews from the natural gas giant Gazprom hurried to repair a defect in the steel pipeline and stem the rush of methane an invisible but powerful greenhouse gas which was escaping into the atmosphere at a breakneck rate of approximately 395 metric tons an hour.

Two weeks later, after inquiries from a geoanalytical firm called Kayrros and from journalists, Gazprom acknowledged the colossal methane release, though the energy company remained secretive, declining to disclose the exact location of the leak.

But a Washington Post photographer, using satellite imagery and tracking GPS coordinates, found a likely spot an hour’s walk from the nearest public roadway, 490 miles east of Moscow. There he saw a deep gash and tire tracks over an area half a football field in size, flanked by yellow signs warning of underground pipelines between stands of trees.

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(Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

The episode reflects a fundamental shift in climate politics. Many countries and companies have long misrepresented or simply miscounted how much fossil fuel-based methane they have let escape into the air.

Now, new satellites devoted to locating and measuring greenhouse gases are orbiting Earth, with more on the way. These sentinels in the sky are auguring an era of data transparency as their patrons seek to safeguard the planet by closing the gap between the amount of methane that scientists know is in the atmosphere versus what is reported from the ground — industry by industry, pipeline by pipeline, leak by leak.

Satellites can provide real time evidence of massive, unreported methane leaks — and who is responsible for them. That information can help officials hold the polluting companies accountable or expose governments that hide or ignore dangerous emissions that are warming the world.

“The atmosphere doesn’t lie,” said Daniel Jacob, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University who uses satellite measurements to try to interpret the world’s methane emissions.

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The satellite revelations could further complicate a critical United Nations climate summit in Scotland in November, known as COP26, where world leaders will face pressure to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Many nations have yet to live up to the promises they made when they forged the Paris climate accord in 2015 — pledges that climate negotiators say are already too low to limit catastrophic warming.

Methane, the second-most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, accounts for roughly a quarter of global warming since the industrial revolution, according to NASA. It is the chief component of natural gas.

Today, the second-biggest natural gas producer is Russia, fed by the prolific Yamal region, followed by Iran and its Persian Gulf gas fields. Next come China, Canada and Qatar, with its flotilla of liquefied natural gas tankers. The United States, bolstered by horizontal fracking in the Permian Basin across west Texas and eastern New Mexico, remains the world’s largest natural gas producer.

Scientists say that rapidly cutting methane “is very likely to be the most powerful lever” to slow the rate of warming. But they have also documented a disturbing and surprising spike in atmospheric concentrations in recent years that they have not yet pinned down.

The methane mystery has also drawn the attention of climate negotiators, who will converge in Glasgow with methane near the top of the agenda. Ahead of those talks, the United States and Europe launched a Global Methane Pledge that aims to reduce methane emissions nearly a third by 2030. Dozens of nations, including nine of the world’s top 20 emitters, have signed onto the effort — but so far, Russia has not.

Given Russia’s sprawling oil and gas industry, climate summit watchers say persuading President Vladimir Putin to plug his nation’s leaking pipelines and dial back plans to grow natural gas exports will be important.

The White House’s chief climate negotiator, John F. Kerry, has spent hours with top Russian officials in search of a “road map,” said Ruslan Edelgeriyev, special presidential envoy on climate issues for the Russian Federation.

Edelgeriyev said that under new bylaws Russia’s methane requirements “will be stricter” because, unlike carbon dioxide, methane cannot be absorbed by forests. In a joint statement in July, the two nations agreed to cooperate on a wide range of climate issues, including limits on methane and the satellite monitoring of emissions.

“We are not trying to hide anything. We do realize that problems exist, and we are trying to find solutions,” Edelgeriyev said, conceding that “at the moment we do not have a complete picture of emissions.”

So far, Russia’s numbers don’t add up, a Post analysis has found:

• Russia claims that it emitted 4 million metric tons of methane from the oil and gas sector in 2019, the most recent year reported. But six studies and scientific emissions data sets reviewed by The Post, using various methods, found much higher annual numbers in recent years, in some cases two to three times as large. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organization set up in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, puts the country’s 2020 figure at nearly 14 million tons, which would make Russia the world’s largest emitter of oil and gas-based methane.

• The number of methane plumes emitted from the aging Russian gas infrastructure rose by at least 40 percent last year, even though natural gas exports to Europe fell an estimated 14 percent due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Kayrros. A recent scientific study found that a significant portion of Russia’s estimated annual methane releases are due to a relatively small number of catastrophic events like the one on June 4, frequently dubbed “super-emitters.”

• Russia has repeatedly revised its methods for calculating emissions, not only shrinking current figures but also rolling back past estimates. The year 2010 shows how Russia’s calculations have fluctuated wildly. In a succession of annual reports to the United Nations, Russia has changed its estimate for oil and gas methane emissions for that year from 15.4 million tons, to 31.5 million tons, to 24.7 million tons, to 23.6 million tons, to 6.5 million tons, and — most recently — 5.1 million tons.

Edelgeriyev said that Russia’s overall estimate of methane emissions had been “audited by international experts” and are “in accordance with an established procedure.” He said fugitive emissions from infrastructure failure and the difficulty of tracing them was one reason he proposed joint satellite monitoring.

2006 report2007 report2008 report2009 report2010 report2011 report2012 report2013 report2014 report2015 report2016 report2017 report2018 report2019 report2020 report2021 reportThese dots represent yearly oil- andgas-related methane emissionsreported by Russia in 20064.36.324.9

How Russia’s methane estimates keep shrinking — on paper

In 2006, Russia told the U.N. that methane emissions going back to 1990 had been around 10 million tons per year from its oil and gas industry.

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Since then, Russia has revised its numbers repeatedly, and the changes have sometimes been enormous.

For the year 2016 alone, Russia changed its estimates from 24.9 million tons, to 6.3 million tons, then — most recently — to 4.3 million tons.

Why did the numbers plunge? Russia recalculated, shaving 90.5 percent off of its estimated oil production leaks.

In its most recent report, Russia’s revised oil and gas methane emission numbers are at their lowest yet. Experts say that while the very high numbers reported in the past may have been an overshoot, it now looks like the country is underestimating its methane problem.

As for the changing numbers, Anna Romanovskaya, a scientist and director of the government-organized Institute of Global Climate and Ecology, said the shifts reflect more accurate information. The most recent numbers are “a result of analysis of new data on methane emissions obtained directly from companies in the oil and gas sector,” she said in a statement.

Romanovskaya contends that Russia’s own figures for fossil-fuel methane emissions are “within the range” of those produced by satellites and reported by the Global Carbon Project, a respected academic consortium that analyzes and quantifies the world’s greenhouse gases. But while there are indeed a few low figures in the Global Carbon Project’s results that resemble Russia’s, most are considerably higher.

Expert reviewers at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, set up to stop “dangerous” human interference in the climate system, have challenged Russia’s numbers. In May, they questioned the country’s major downward revision of leaks from oil production — by over 90 percent — saying Russia “did not provide information on the significant decrease in the level of [methane] emissions” caused by its recalculations.

At the request of The Post, experts from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Harvard sought to measure Russia’s recent emissions using a technique called atmospheric “inversion,” drawing on 22 months of infrared data collected by the Sentinel-5P satellite. For an enormous area covering much of Russia’s largest oil and gas region, they estimated 7.6 million tons of methane emissions per year — and for the entire country, 8.3 million tons. That’s more than twice as high as Russia’s latest reported figure.

The Paris agreement is voluntary, and there is no international mechanism for cracking down on greenhouse gases contaminating the Earth’s air.

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But that might be changing. European regulators are planning to open a new front in trade wars, imposing import taxes to penalize companies that sell natural gas in Europe while leaving behind a trail of leaked methane.

“If they want to continue to export to the European Union, then they must clean up the production methods that they are using. And this applies to every country that is exporting to the E.U.,” said Brendan Devlin, strategy adviser to the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body.

Scientists and regulators agree that one surefire way to have a fast impact on global warming is to locate and slash fugitive emissions of methane derived from coal, oil and gas. Methane is most heavily concentrated in the atmosphere during the first decade or so after release. Over 20 years, its warming impact is more than 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Capturing methane in the oil and gas sector is technologically simple, usually cheap and can reward companies that currently dump gas into the atmosphere. Cutting carbon dioxide in the energy sector, by contrast, is a massive undertaking; it would require, for example, owners of the world’s 1.4 billion cars to go electric.

The International Energy Agency, part of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, has said oil and gas companies could cut methane emissions by 75 percent using currently available technology. That matters, because time is running short.

“This must be the year for action — the make it or break it year,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech in April, one of many occasions he has pushed leaders to move more quickly on climate action. “This is truly a pivotal year for humanity’s future.”

At an online event, Devlin said that if the world stopped emitting all the methane it possibly could, the planet would limit global warming by 0.3 degrees Celsius by 2050.

“Although that may not sound like a great deal, it’s about one-third of everything we need in order to keep the global temperature within the 1.5 scenario set out in the Paris agreement,” Devlin said. “Doing something now on methane can reduce the global warming effect of our lifestyles, very quickly and with appreciable results by 2050, and it only involves doing things we know we can do today.”

It’s simple, he said. “It’s basically plumbing.”

Shrouded in secrecy

The heart of Russia’s massive natural gas business lies in a remote peninsula bigger than Pennsylvania that sits north of the Arctic Circle, where gas fields and the traditional routes for reindeer herds intersect every summer. Russia’s Yamal Peninsula in Siberia hosts 18 fields belonging to the state-owned Gazprom. They produced 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas last year — 2.5 percent of global output.

The conditions are harsh. It’s dark for two months in winter, temperatures can drop down to 55 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and it’s frozen seven to nine months of the year.

Yet even as rising methane emissions warm the planet, Russia has no plans to stem production of natural gas. Gazprom’s website boasts that it intends to operate for more than 100 years in Yamal, which in the Indigenous Nenets’ language means “land’s end.”

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The bulk of Russia’s gas come from the Yamal Peninsula, where drilling rigs like this one in the Bovanenkovo gas field cut across the frozen landscape. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Parts of Russia’s Arctic already have warmed double or even triple the global average. If that trajectory continues for a century, such warming will obliterate gigantic tracts of Arctic permafrost, uncover yet more mammoth remains, heat up croplands and cities and topple oil and gas infrastructure planted in the softening soil.

The country has long faced criticism for setting weak climate targets and not doing more to curb the carbon footprint of its massive fossil fuel industry. Experts at the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors countries’ climate promises, rate Russia’s current 2030 target under the Paris agreement as “highly insufficient.”

For years, Putin rejected the scientific consensus that humans are fueling the warming of the planet. At the same time, the Kremlin’s position was that, if anything, Russia stood to benefit from climate change, opening up the Northern Sea Route to export oil and gas by tankers as the waters become free of ice.

But in televised comments in late June, Putin warned that “global warming is happening in our country even faster than in many other regions of the world.” He added that the thawing permafrost in Russia’s northern regions could lead to “very serious social and economic consequences” for the country. Days later, he signed a law that will require the nation’s biggest polluters to report their greenhouse gas emissions.

Yakutia — Russia’s coldest region — has been engulfed by massive wildfires this summer, and Putin told government officials that climate change is to blame, noting that the Arctic is warming nearly three times the global average.

The new attention to global warming hasn’t extended to Russia’s network of gas pipelines. Leaks rarely get media attention, and gas is widely considered a lesser evil compared to coal, which still powers many households in the Siberian heartland. Even in Russia’s environmental activist circles, methane is rarely discussed — though high leakage can make it more harmful than coal.

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Maxim Evdokimov has worked as a construction and mechanical foreman at gas fields across Russia, including those in the remote Yamal region, for more than a decade. He often investigates potential leaks and has a collection of photos showing natural gas flares — tall industrial chimneys with flames burning on top — from the fields where he’s worked. But he doesn’t see methane as a climate villain.

“Methane is natural gas. How can it be harmful to the environment?” he asked. “Methane appears in every life process, from cows to plankton.”

Methane does come from a wide range of sources, from landfills to rice paddies, from abandoned coal mines to hog waste lagoons, from wetlands to thawing permafrost — and in every instance it is also a powerful greenhouse gas.

“To say that we’re all going to build turbine towers and solar plants everywhere right now is premature from my point of view,” Evdokimov said. “We have a lot of gas, we continue to explore new reserves, and old ones will suffice for decades to come.”

Part of Yamal’s gas is liquefied at huge plants and shipped abroad in tankers, the numbers of which will increase over the next decade. Pipelines branch off like railroad tracks from a train station, cutting through the landscape of frozen tundra and boreal forests.

At the fields, the word “GAS” is plastered across hulking white cylinders in large Cyrillic letters. From there, the pipelines snake west, crossing the Ural mountain range, powering Russian cities and towns and providing critical exports to Europe. Others will head east, carrying gas to China and to a new large petrochemical plant on the Chinese border.

The resources in Yamal are enormous. Gazprom’s Bovanenkovo field alone possesses reserves of 4.9 trillion cubic meters, about twice as large as all of Europe’s. And gas from the field will be fed into the politically controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will soon expand exports connecting Russian gas production and European consumers.

The gas for Nord Stream 2 will travel west for 13 days, from Yamal to Narva Bay at the Russia-Estonia border and then underneath the Baltic Sea and Danish waters before landing on Germany’s coast. The new line could make Europe more dependent on imports from Russia and give Moscow greater leverage and flexibility to bypass certain European countries in the event of a political flap.

“I often hear that Russia is not interested in addressing global climate issues,” Putin said in an address at a St. Petersburg business conference on June 4 — the same day as the Gazprom leak in Tatarstan. “This is nonsense. And in some cases, it is a deliberate, blatant twisting of facts. We feel the risks and challenges.”

Edelgeriyev, Putin’s climate adviser, said it would help if United States would lift sanctions, which were imposed in retaliation for Russia’s violating Ukraine’s territorial borders, allegedly poisoning Russia’s opposition leader, interfering in U.S. elections and launching cyberattacks against the United States.

“Climate projects should be sanctions exempt,” he said. “The companies should be able to have access to finance, equipment and technologies. Otherwise how can they work?”

Putin called the Nord Stream 2 natural gas “the cleanest in the world” because it “is pumped straight from under the surface. There is no fracking at all.” The pipeline, he said, “complies fully with the most stringent environmental standards.”

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The gas travels through thousands of miles of pipelines with compressor stations spaced regularly along the way to keep the gas moving. In Slavyanskaya, a new station directs natural gas to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. (Peter Kovalev/TASS/Getty Images)

But Russia’s gas enterprise remains shrouded in secrecy. Areas around key gas facilities that dot large parts of the Yamal Peninsula are considered restricted zones and are off limits to non-Russian citizens without special permission from state security services.

Gazprom and energy companies Novatek and Lukoil declined The Post’s requests for interviews for this story.

An aging colossus

The sheer size of Russia’s gas infrastructure is one reason to suspect that the nation’s methane emissions dwarf its own most recent estimates.

Gazprom’s pipeline network in Russia is about 110,000 miles long. Pipelines undergo regular maintenance to catch signs of corrosion from gas and moisture. To identify a leak, operators shut down valves at either end of the pipe segment.

At that point, the best course would be to pump the gas out and capture it. Instead, often the methane is “flared,” or burned, to relieve pressure. That turns it into carbon dioxide, which is a much less potent greenhouse gas than methane. But frequently companies simply open the valves without flaring, sending methane gas directly into the atmosphere.

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Accidental leaks, such as the one on June 4, are another matter. A catastrophic failure in a well or pipeline can last a short period of time, but with profound consequences. Gazprom, formerly the Soviet Ministry of Gas Industry, must deal with many of those failures given the age and length of its pipelines.

The disruptive leaks, known as super-emitters, throw out of whack any attempt to systematically count greenhouse gas emissions. About 5 percent of leaks worldwide typically contribute over 50 percent of total emissions, according to a report by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Oil or natural gas drilling rig
Production field
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How methane leaks along a pipeline

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Methane can escape into the atmosphere all along a pipeline route, from the site of exploratory drilling to markets hundreds of miles away. The three main ways that happens are known as venting, flaring, and leaking.

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After the drilling rig is removed, it is replaced with a wellhead. Those components can wear down over time, resulting in “fugitive” emissions.

In some places where exploration is focused on oil, methane is an unwanted byproduct that is burned, or “flared,” to form carbon dioxide — a less harmful greenhouse gas. Older flares, however, only burn 70 to 80 percent of methane, and allow the rest to escape.

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Natural gas from wells contains substances other than just methane. The gas is sent to processing plants where those substances are separated into other byproducts, such as propane. Some methane can escape from these facilities, though generally less than at other points along the pipeline.

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Compressor stations are spaced regularly along pipelines to increase pressure and help keep the gas moving. Machines and valves at stations work under mechanical stress and high temperatures, and components can wear down and become prone to leaks.

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When worn-out sections of a pipeline need to be replaced or repaired, they are sealed off. Even during routine repairs, significant amounts of methane can still escape. This is one way methane gets “vented,” or released directly into the atmosphere.

Methane that escapes during an accidental leak or planned venting from a well or coal mine into the atmosphere is called a “fugitive emission.”

Especially large leaks are known as super-emitter events.

Excess natural gas may be placed in storage tanks above or below ground. Aging storage tanks are also susceptible to leaks.

Energy companies are responsible for monitoring and reporting their own emissions “within the framework of state accounting,” Gazprom said in a statement. Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources Management is supposed to make sure the self-reported data is accurate. But the regulatory structure provides few incentives to stanch the leaking.

Gazprom, which is 38 percent owned by the state and 11 percent by a state oil company, rarely faces stiff penalties. The Gazprom 2020 Environmental Report said that Russian supervisory bodies conducted 531 environmental compliance checks on the company’s facilities, resulting in 548 violations. Gazprom said it paid $2.7 million in compensation for environmental damage and $170,000 in penalties. The penalties amount to an average of $310 per violation.

Moreover, Gazprom only faces fines after releases exceed a state-imposed quota.

Edelgeriyev, Russia’s top climate adviser, said that once regulatory agencies were done reviewing, Gazprom could end up paying something. But he said “if you look at the length of the pipelines in the country, I wouldn’t say our situation is critical or that our standards are low.”

In an August 2020 report, Gazprom said that all the methane emissions detected in 2019 by the European Space Agency satellite and used by Kayrros were “associated with scheduled diagnostic and repair works at gas transmission system facilities.”

Among the biggest sources of methane emissions are compressor stations, located roughly every 150 miles along the pipelines. Gazprom, which owns two-thirds of Russia’s gas industry, has 254 of them.

Distance, friction and elevation differences slow the flow of natural gas. These stations increase the pressure so the gas keeps moving. Satellite maps of Russia’s pipelines show the compressor stations lit up by leaks, an archipelago of emissions along the routes.

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Nord Stream 2, which will double the pipeline’s capacity once completed, cuts across the Baltic Sea, linking Russia to Germany. (Jens Büttner/Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

“Gazprom is using over 3,000 gas turbine units at its compressor stations, and each of them is switched on and off according to schedule, emitting large amounts of methane each time,” said Mikhail Krutikhin, a partner at RusEnergy, an independent consulting firm in Moscow. “In addition, there are losses from leaky pipes, valves, connections and other equipment. Accidents also happen frequently, adding to ‘technological losses.’”

In the case of the June 4 accident, the company said in a statement to The Post that a pipeline defect had “required an immediate shutdown and repair.” Due to “the urgency” of the situation, it said, Gazprom was not able to deploy special equipment designed to prevent most of the methane from escaping.

Satellites can help detection when things on the ground go awry. Kayrros uncovered three major leaks that took place in Russia on the same day as the June 4 methane plume in Tatarstan. Using the European Space Agency satellite data, Kayrros also discovered two methane bursts that day in Turkmenistan, another gas-rich country formerly part of the Soviet Union.

That occurrence was not an isolated one.

Earlier, Kayrros scientists located 13 methane emission events from 2019 to 2020, along the 2,300-mile Yamal-Europe pipeline. By combining data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P and Sentinel-2 missions, along with its own artificial intelligence and algorithms, Kayrros found another 33 emission plumes over the same period on the shorter, Brotherhood pipeline.

An easy fix

From his home computer, former Shell geologist Mark Davis can quickly find almost any flare in the world. The practice is common in the industry, and it accounts for 2 percent of global greenhouse gases every year — enough to power sub-Saharan Africa — according to the World Bank.

Flaring takes place when gas is discovered along with oil and there is no infrastructure to capture it. Faulty or inefficient flares, however, can let large quantities of methane slip by into the atmosphere.

The overwhelming majority of flares worldwide only combust 70 to 80 percent of methane, according to Diarmaid Mulholland, vice president of measurement and sensing at the oil-field service firm Baker Hughes. The rest goes into the atmosphere as methane.

“Flaring wastes 150 billion cubic meters a year, creates $20 billion of revenue loss and creates over 1 billion CO2-equivalent tons of emissions,” said Davis, chief executive of a flare tracking firm called Capterio. “By solving flaring, we can make a big short-term quick win, accelerate the transition and make good some of the ambitions in the [pledges] at COP26.”

With the help of satellite data and software developed in part by the Colorado School of Mines, Davis said he can get a picture of any flare in the world on a given day, including the air speed of the gas release, the location and the owners of the site.

Mark Davis, chief executive of Capterio, has made it his specialty to track gas flares, which account for 2 percent of global greenhouse gases. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind for The Washington Post)
Mark Davis, chief executive of Capterio, has made it his specialty to track gas flares, which account for 2 percent of global greenhouse gases. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind for The Washington Post)

Asked to look up one of the biggest flares in Russia, Davis quickly pulled up satellite photos and emissions data for flares coming from the Novoportovskoye field, operated by Gazprom’s oil subsidiary in Yamal. There are a handful of flares, but two stacks, jutting up from storage tanks, stood out with large flames and black smoke. Although it is an oil field, gas was found along with the oil and the nearest gas pipeline was 85 miles away. The field had the second-highest flaring levels in Russia in 2020 and the third-highest in 2021 so far, Davis said.

Even flaring doesn’t work efficiently. About 20 percent of the methane escapes the combustion of flares. Davis estimates that energy from the field’s lost methane would drive the equivalent of 1.7 million gasoline-fueled cars for a year.

That is the power — and promise — of the new sentinels in the sky.

“It’s a revolution, there’s no doubt about it,” said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

A report from Columbia University researchers last year found that over the next five years, new satellite systems, in concert with measurements taken from airplanes and ground-based monitors, mean that “our world is rapidly becoming a place in which methane emissions will have nowhere to hide.”

For Antoine Halff, satellite data has been a game-changer.

Halff co-founded Kayrros after spending 25 years in academia, Wall Street and the International Energy Agency. He had grown worried about the gaps, delays and inaccuracies in traditional methods of collecting statistics on the oil and gas market and saw the huge potential of new sources of information from satellites and other devices.

Kayrros has detected leaks from a landfill in Bangladesh, gas fields in Alberta, coal mines in Appalachia and a large number of unreported leaks in both Russia and the United States, the world’s two biggest oil and gas-based methane emitters. (In a 2018 study, EDF researchers and their colleagues found that the United States, like Russia, was also widely underreporting methane emissions from the sector.)

For the first time, the IEA has drawn on satellite data and Kayrros’ analysis to estimate that Russia last year released a colossal 14 million tons of oil and gas-related methane emissions, sharply higher than what Moscow is currently reporting for the most recent year, 2019.

If the leaked methane were converted into tons of carbon dioxide, it would nearly equal the total emissions claimed for all sources in Turkey.

“We couldn’t really fix the methane problem before,” said Halff, blaming “a lack of knowledge, a lack of transparency about the market and a lack of incentives.”

Now, however, he said, “we are exposing the true footprint of the industry, which is actually even larger than we thought and certainly larger than traditional technologies of reporting emissions have suggested until now.”

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Sentinels in the sky

Tracking down methane emissions demands scientific rigor, a bit of art and a lot of computing power.

Because methane gas absorbs light at a unique set of wavelengths, it leaves behind a distinct spectral signature.

Reading that signature isn’t simple, though, because the atmosphere is a dynamic place. One must understand how the winds are moving, calculate how plumes disperse and possess a detailed list of potential emission sources. This requires complex computer simulation, including artificial intelligence to sift through and process mountains of raw data from multiple satellites.

“This can be done at lightspeed with AI and simply could not be done at all by hand,” Halff said.

Antoine Halff, co-founder of Kayrros, uses satellite data to expose the energy industry’s true emissions footprint. (Jonah Markowitz for The Washington Post)
Antoine Halff, co-founder of Kayrros, uses satellite data to expose the energy industry’s true emissions footprint. (Jonah Markowitz for The Washington Post)

For example, when the scientists from EDF and Harvard concluded that Russia was emitting about twice as much as Moscow claimed, they leaned on computer power to run 24 different inversion experiments for a region containing roughly 95 percent — but not all — of Russia’s methane emissions from oil and gas.

The in-depth analysis “consistently suggests that the country’s latest inventory emissions are underreporting,” said EDF atmospheric scientist Ritesh Gautam, who conducted the research along with colleagues at Harvard.

Other satellite analyses show similar results.

A particularly revealing study was led by Zhu Deng of Tsinghua University in Beijing and Philippe Ciais of France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, although it is not yet peer reviewed. The study directly compared Russia’s reported figures for total fossil fuel methane emissions in 2017 — around 6.5 million tons — with the results from 20 atmospheric models. Again, the group of models suggested emissions were nearly twice as high.

Official Russian calculations are much more rooted on Earth.

Russian companies hire top tier third-party auditors to certify their sustainability plans, but it’s difficult to trust them, said Tatiana Mitrova, head of research at the energy institute of the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo and a member of the Novatek and Schlumberger boards of directors. (She declined to comment about those two companies.)

The auditors, she said, are simply using data handed to them.

“It is true that they calculated properly using some average coefficient, but that may not have any connection to reality,” she said. “No one can certify whether all the emissions are reported or whether the companies themselves know all the emissions.”

To calculate emissions, companies use standardized assumptions about the performance of dozens of pieces of equipment, which can differ greatly from the labs where they are tested to the field where they function.

“In the field, old equipment doesn’t operate as well as in the lab. So these emission factors are just guesstimates that are systematically low,” said Robert Kleinberg, a geophysicist and former energy technology expert at the oil-field service firm Schlumberger. While serious discrepancies occur in the United States and other countries, “Russia is kind of a black hole for data.”

Gazprom said in June 2020 that fugitive methane emissions across its entire production chain “are close to zero.” It said that in 2019 those emissions amounted to 0.02 percent of the gas extracted, 0.29 percent of the gas in transmission and 0.03 percent of the gas in underground storage. “These figures correspond to the best global practices,” Gazprom said in its most recent statement on the emissions.

But experts say such highly efficient capture of methane is unheard of, especially in such an old and sprawling infrastructure. A 2019 study by the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory found that Russian gas piped to Europe emits more greenhouse gases than European coal.

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After traveling for 13 days, the gas from the Yamal Peninsula ends up in German landing stations like this one in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania before reaching customers. (Jens Büttner/Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

With the approach of the Glasgow climate conference, Russia has detailed its road map, which is paved with fossil fuels. It says its greenhouse gas emissions will increase 8.2 percent over the next 30 years. But it’s said that planting trees, restoring wetlands and curbing wildfires would double the ability of the nation’s forests to absorb carbon dioxide and offset the increase in gas emissions.

A Kremlin report drafted by the economic development ministry and released Aug. 26 called natural gas “a transition fuel [that] can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries.” It said it could “redirect” its gas exports “from the west to the east.”

A proposed climate tax in Europe could pose a new test for Russia. The E.U. wants to adopt a “carbon border adjustment mechanism” — in essence, taxing imports that emitted greenhouse gases before arriving in Europe. It would apply to everything, including steel, manufactured goods and natural gas, not only from Russia but from liquefied natural gas facilities on the U.S. Gulf Coast, on Qatari tankers and in Norwegian pipelines.

The tax could cost Russian firms $50 billion over the next decade, according to estimates from the country’s leading business lobby.

Some Russian firms are stirring. Gazprom says it already uses drones to inspect its gas pipelines, some of which date to the 1960s and 1970s, according to Mitrova. Novatek said it would cut methane emissions in its production systems 17 percent by 2019, according to its website, but only by 4 percent more through 2030. Rosneft, an oil company that grapples with unwanted natural gas discovered alongside oil, has slashed fugitive gas emissions by 73 percent, Edelgeriyev said.

“Companies no longer have the choice of not doing it,” said Mitrova. “It’s not rocket science.”

A report issued by Skolkovo, the Moscow business school and think tank, points to examples of success in other countries. For instance, the report says, Royal Dutch Shell has replaced gas-fired pumps with electric ones in Appalachia, and it’s installed new electric power drives to control the operation of valves at sites in Canada. Before selling interests in west Texas, it had introduced “zero2” technology to reduce methane burning or venting there.

“If you find something wrong, you can fix it,” she said. “There is nothing challenging about that, no new frontiers. But something has to be done.”

Mary Ilyushina and Aaron Steckelberg contributed to this report.

About this story

Sources: Sentinel-5P Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) methane data via ESA Copernicus; Sentinel-5P orbit data via Space Track; corrected reflectance satellite imagery from the joint NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite; Russia’s annual inventory submissions to the United Nations.

Conversions of greenhouse gas emissions are based on estimates from EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator and its estimations for yearly vehicle emissions.

Project editing by Trish Wilson. Graphics editing by Monica Ulmanu. Graphics by John Muyskens, Naema Ahmed and Aaron Steckelberg. Photo editing and project management by Olivier Laurent. Photography by Arthur Bondar, Jonah Markowitz and Anastasia Taylor-Lind. Design editing by Matthew Callahan. Design and development by Garland Potts and Frank Hulley-Jones. Copy editing by Anastasia Marks.

Julie Vitkovskaya, Sarah Dunton and Jordan Melendrez also contributed to this report.

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Methane is most potent in the first decade or so after it is emitted. It dissipates much more quickly than carbon dioxide, which can persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
Clarification: A previous version of this calculator referred to a car's annual carbon dioxide emissions, when it should have referred to all greenhouse gas emissions, which are 99.3% carbon dioxide.
Steven Mufson covers the business of climate change for The Washington Post. Since joining The Post in 1989, he has covered economic policy, China, diplomacy, energy and the White House. Earlier, he worked for The Wall Street Journal. In 2020, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for a climate change series "2C: Beyond the Limit."
Isabelle Khurshudyan is a foreign correspondent based in Moscow. A University of South Carolina graduate, she has worked at The Washington Post since 2014, previously as a sports reporter covering the Washington Capitals, high school sports and local colleges.
Chris Mooney is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter covering climate change, energy, and the environment. He has reported from the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, the Northwest Passage, and the Greenland ice sheet, among other locations, and has written four books about science, politics and climate change.
Brady Dennis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health. He previously spent years covering the nation’s economy.
John Muyskens is a graphics reporter who focuses on climate change and environmental justice.
Naema Ahmed is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, she worked at Axios as a data visualization designer.