Satellite studying volcanoes finds giant oilfield methane plume

Naureen S. Malik November 22, 2019

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) - The monitoring of pollution from oil and gas fields achieved a major breakthrough after a satellite company discovered a methane leak in Central Asia equivalent to the fumes of a million cars.

In a study published Friday, Montreal-based GHGSat Inc. said it was searching for emissions at mud volcanoes when it discovered the giant plume apparently deriving from unlit flaring in the Korpezhe oil and gas field in western Turkmenistan. The release, persistent in images captured from early last year through February, was the first discovery of an unknown industrial methane leak from space, GHGSat President Stephane Germain said.

The company then tapped U.S., Canada and European diplomatic channels to alert the Turkmenistan field operator, Germain said in a telephone interview. They didn’t communicate with the company directly, but more recent images show the emissions had stopped by May.

“This is the equivalent of taking one million passenger vehicles off the road,” Germain said. “This scientifically provides first detection” by satellite, he said.

Calls and messages to Turkmenistan’s state gas producer and energy ministry weren’t immediately answered.

The find demonstrates how satellites can be used “to enable corrective action to fight climate change,” according to the research published by the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters journal. It comes at a time when the oil and gas industry faces mounting pressure to reduce emissions of methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases.

Flaring is the burning of unwanted natural gas released from oil fields, converting it into carbon dioxide and avoiding the release of methane. Often, high winds and equipment malfunctions can extinguish the flames.

GHGSat was capturing images scaled to 144 square kilometers (55 square miles) in Central Asia to explore and calibrate emissions detection from naturally occurring mud volcanoes to compare to land-based measurements. Their satellite couldn’t detect the small quantities from the mud volcanoes but it did pick up on three unexplained bright spots nearby.

The second source appears to be from a pipeline, potentially due to a valve release, Germain said. A third smaller one, which also appears to be from an unlit flare, cropped up a few times.

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