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Massive Methane Emissions by Oil and Gas Industry Detected from Space

Limiting volumes released would mitigate climate effects and save billions of dollars


An international study involving The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and CEA researchers and the company Kayrros has uncovered hundreds of major methane releases linked to global oil and gas extraction activities. The team of scientists has shown that limiting volumes released would mitigate climate effects and save money—billions of dollars for the main fossil-fuel-producing countries. Their study is published in Science.

A major contributor to climate change, methane (CH4) has a global warming potential approximately 30 times higher than that of CO2, over a 100-year period. One quarter of anthropogenic emissions of this greenhouse gas originate in worldwide extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas (of which methane is the main component). A study in 2018 already revealed that official US inventories greatly underestimated actual emissions from oil and gas extraction and distribution activities. The observed discrepancy is apparently due to undeclared sporadic releases of large quantities of methane by industry operators.

An international research team led by the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (CNRS / CEA / UVSQ), in cooperation with the firm Kayrros, have achieved a world first by completing a global tally of the largest emissions of methane into the atmosphere by the fossil-fuel industry. These may be accidental or the result of intentional venting associated with maintenance operations, which account for very large releases. To obtain their data, the researchers methodically analyzed thousands of daily images generated by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel-5P satellite over a two-year period. This allowed them to map 1,800 methane plumes around the globe, of which 1,200 were attributed to fossil-fuel extraction. They deem the impact of such releases on the climate comparable to that of 20 million vehicles on the road for one year.

These emissions account for 10 percent of the total estimate for the industry. Yet they are just the tip of the iceberg because the satellite is only able to routinely detect the biggest plumes (>25 tonnes (27 tons) per hour of CH4), which are also the most intermittent. The researchers demonstrate that these massive releases of methane are not randomly located but always appear over particular oil and gas extraction sites. As borne out by observations of these releases, whose volumes depend on maintenance protocols and diligence in the repair of leaks, the rules implemented by states and businesses play a major role.

But would preventing these emissions be so costly to oil and gas operators that they prefer to pursue their current practices? By taking into account the underlying social costs related to climate change and air quality, as well as the monetary value of gas wasted, the study actually shows that limiting them would yield billions of dollars in net savings for the countries in question. It emphasizes the need for a reliable atmospheric monitoring system to thoroughly track emissions and estimate the impact of local measures aimed at abatement.

- This press release was originally published on the CNRS website