The first satellite designed to continuously monitor the planet for methane leaks made a startling discovery last year: A little known gas-well accident at an Ohio fracking site was in fact one of the largest methane leaks ever recorded in the US.
The findings by a Dutch-American team of scientists, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, mark a step forward in using space technology to detect leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, from oil and gas sites worldwide.
The scientists said the new findings reinforced the view that methane releases like these, which are difficult to predict, could be far more widespread than previously thought.
“We’re entering a new era. With a single observation, a single overpass, we’re able to see plumes of methane coming from large emission sources,” said Ilse Aben, an expert in satellite remote sensing and one of the authors of the new research. “That’s something totally new that we were previously not able to do from space.”
Scientists also said the new findings reinforced the view that methane emissions from oil installations are far more widespread than previously thought.
The blowout, in February 2018 at a natural gas well run by an Exxon Mobil subsidiary in Belmont County, Ohio, released more methane than the entire oil and gas industries of many nations do in a year, the research team found.
The Ohio episode forced about 100 residents within a one-mile radius to evacuate their homes while workers scrambled to plug the well.
Natural gas production has come under increased scrutiny because of the prevalence of leaks of methane — the colourless, odourless main component of natural gas — from the fuel’s supply chain.
When burned for electricity, natural gas is cleaner than coal, producing about half the carbon dioxide that coal does.
But if methane escapes into the atmosphere before being burned, it can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
The New York Times