There is an open secret in the oil and gas industry and it is feeding the climate crisis.
Massive methane leaks, known as super-emitter events, have been taking place at oil and gas fields all over the world, from the United States to Turkmenistan. The releases, most of which can be traced to equipment failures, can last for weeks. One outside of a storage facility in Los Angeles in 2015 hemorrhaged almost 100,000 tonnes of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere over the course of four months.
In June, researchers at Spain’s Polytechnic University of Valencia, said they uncovered the latest known super-emitter event at an oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The installation discharged 40,000 tonnes of methane during a 17-day spell in December 2021 — equivalent to 3 per cent of Mexico’s annual oil and gas emissions. Researchers said the release may never have been known to the public if not for the fact that it was captured by a European Space Agency satellite.
While the discharge was caught, it remains challenging to trace emissions of methane, which is colourless, odourless and responsible for more than 25 per cent of the global warming the Earth is experiencing today. Due to its structure, methane traps more heat in the atmosphere per molecule than carbon dioxide (CO2) making it 80 times more harmful than CO2 during the 20 years after it is released into the atmosphere.
As countries develop plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst effects of climate change, experts say it's vital to have a better handle on how much methane is being released into the atmosphere, including from super-emitter events. Cutting human-caused methane by 45 per cent this decade would keep warming beneath a threshold outlined by the Paris Agreement.
The big challenge is knowing exactly how much [methane] is being emitted, where it is being emitted and for how long it has been emitted.
A new methane database
To track and measure methane emissions, the United Nations Environment Programme in October 2021 launched the International Methane Emissions Observatory. It catalogues discharges from the fossil fuel sector, and soon waste and agricultural releases as well.
The oil and gas industries are major producers of methane, emitting the gas during drilling, production, and other parts of their operations. Methane is also sometimes released intentionally from oil and gas facilities for safety reasons.
The agriculture sector is also a large emitter of methane, particularly from livestock and the growing of certain foods, such as rice. Waste is the third most common man-made source of methane as bacteria break down organic matter in landfills.
The IMEO aims to create a public database of empirically verified methane emissions. Right now, countries often rely on estimates, which can sometimes be several magnitudes lower than real emissions levels.
“A more accurate picture of methane emissions gives governments and companies the information they need to act with confidence,” said Mark Radka, Chief of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch. “This is true for both good policies and sound management practices.”
“The big challenge is knowing exactly how much [methane] is being emitted, where it is being emitted and for how long it has been emitted to be able to reduce emissions to the level we need to,” said Manfredi Caltagirone, the head of the International Methane Emissions Observatory.
The best way to measure methane emissions is through the combination of operational knowledge and the use of methane quantification technologies, drones and sensor-equipped aircraft.
Satellites are also becoming an effective means of detecting and measuring large methane emissions. While using satellites is not always practical—as methane readings can be hidden by ambient conditions such as cloud cover, dense forests, or snow cover—they are particularly useful for detecting and quantifying super-emitter events like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. (According to the researchers, it appears, the massive leak was most likely caused by equipment malfunction.)
In fact, the team of scientists who discovered the super-emitter event in the Gulf of Mexico are in the process of expanding their work to offshore oil and gas production sites in other parts of the world.
If the current methane emission inventories are problematic, are they worth the trouble? For Giulia Ferrini, Programme Management Officer at UNEP, the answer is a resounding yes, if some changes in approach are made.
According to her, keeping accurate and transparent inventories is instrumental in heading off climate change. Caltagirone and Ferrini believe that site specific, or asset-level, methane inventories based on measurements are an essential component of mitigation because the Paris Agreement is built on transparency and accountability. Collecting these asset-level data provides the necessary information to those who have the power to cut the emissions.
The Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 is a voluntary commitment by companies to measure and report their methane emissions from sources like pipelines, storage tanks and offshore oil platforms. That allows them to obtain better data on which to act and concentrate mitigation efforts on their most-polluting sites.
IMEO data will also help track progress of the Global Methane Pledge. This initiative brings together over 100 countries committed to reducing their collective methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.
If it is key to measure routine methane emissions across the supply chain, what about the super-emitter events that often go unnoticed? How common are large leaks such as the one that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and can they be prevented?
“The way to spot all emissions – large and small – is to have good monitoring regimes,” said Mark Radka. “Until recently, we did not have the tools to monitor methane emissions independently. Satellites are now good at spotting big emission events, and they are getting more precise, with better resolution, but they won’t spot the smaller emissions. We need to put those large sources in the context of the overall emissions, where lots of small emissions can be just as damaging.”
About the Climate and Clean Air Coalition
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is a voluntary partnership of governments, intergovernmental organizations, businesses, scientific institutions and civil society organizations committed to improving air quality and protecting the climate through actions to reduce short-lived climate pollutants, including methane, black carbon, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The Coalition has 71 state partners and 78 non-state partners. On methane, it has initiatives in all three major emitting sectors: oil and gas, waste, and agriculture. The Coalition’s Secretariat is hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme.