CATHY BUSSEWITZ, AP Energy Staff Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — As serious as methane leaks from ruptured pipelines on the Baltic Sea floor can be, there are alarming incidents of massive methane releases around the world on a regular basis.
Climate scientists have found that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are much worse than what companies are reporting, despite claims by some major companies that they have reduced their emissions. That’s important because natural gas, a fossil fuel widely used to heat homes and provide electricity, is made up of methane, a powerful gas that contributes to global warming. It escapes into the atmosphere from wells and through the natural gas distribution network, from pipelines and compressor stations to export terminals that liquefy the gas for shipment abroad.
Scientists measuring methane from satellites in space have found that methane emissions from oil and gas operations are often at least double what companies reported, said Thomas Lauvaux, a scientist at the University of Reims in France. In the Permian Basin, the largest oil and gas field in the United States, methane emissions were two to three times higher than what companies reported, he said.
“Everyone claims that they have reduced their emissions, but it is not true,” said Lauvaux.
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Governments around the world, especially in the US, are also notorious for underestimating the amount of methane escaping into the air, said Cornell University professor of ecology and biology Robert Howarth, who studies emissions. of natural gas.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency uses voluntary industry self-reporting, rather than independent verification, which is what is needed, Howarth said.
Globally, Turkmenistan is among the worst offenders for releasing methane into the atmosphere, while Saudi Arabia is among the best at capturing it, based on satellite observations, Lauvaux said. The United States sits somewhere in the middle, with some companies capturing methane quite well and others performing terribly.
Lauvaux and other scientists have observed more than 1,500 large methane leaks around the world, and potentially tens of thousands of smaller leaks, using satellites, he said.
Most methane emissions from the oil and gas industry come from pipelines and compressor stations, according to Kayrros, a company that analyzes satellite data.
Many of those alleged leaks are not accidental; they occur when businesses perform routine maintenance. For example, when a pipeline needs repair, operators need to purge the gas so they can weld without an explosion. But instead of capturing the gas, most companies simply open the pipeline and release the methane into the air, a practice that is legal in the US and elsewhere. Some companies capture methane rather than just release it, but more could adopt the practice, the scientists said.
One way the oil and gas industry tries to reduce methane emissions is by flaring or burning off what they consider to be excess gas. Companies can use a flare when they are drilling for oil, and the gas comes out along with the oil. If they don’t have the pipeline infrastructure to transport it to customers, or if they’ve decided that gas, which is generally cheaper than oil, isn’t worth it, they can send the gas up a stack to burn it. off.
In Turkmenistan, scientists found that flares malfunctioned for three years. “This gas is just being dumped into the atmosphere,” Lauvaux said.
A study published Thursday by scientists at the University of Michigan found that burning releases five times more methane in the US than previously thought. They found that flares are often not lit or not working, allowing gas to escape directly into the atmosphere.
Reducing flares or making sure flares are working properly would go a long way, said Genevieve Plant, lead author of the study and a climate scientist at the University of Michigan.
“If we take action soon, it will have a huge climate impact,” Plant said.
Fossil fuels are by no means the only source of methane. The gas can come from decomposing garbage in landfills and livestock farming, even from plants decomposing in reservoirs. Fossil methane may account for about 30% of the total.
David Archer is a professor in the department of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, focusing on the global carbon cycle. He thinks a lot about the methane that has escaped from the pipes of the Baltic Sea dissolved in the water.
The leak is dramatic, but it doesn’t compare to the daily impact of methane emitters such as farming operations, Archer said.
The numbers “from oil wells and cattle are much larger, just harder to visualize. If the Baltic blast looks big, it’s because it’s concentrated,” he said.
AP reporters Patrick Whittle contributed from Portland, Maine, Seth Borenstein from Washington, DC, and Christina Larson from Washington, DC.
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