New evidence has been collected from orbiting satellites that shows oil and gas companies routinely release large amounts of methane to the atmosphere.

Natural gas is a fuel made up of methane, which is its main ingredient. Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas with a warming effect second only to carbon dioxide. Thomas Lauvaux, a French researcher at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, states that there has been a consistent discrepancy in official estimates and field observations of methane emissions.

He says that he has been collecting data for years on methane emissions over the years. While flying over an area, he was driving around and found more than he expected.

To get better clarity, researchers turned to satellites. Three years ago, the European Space Agency launched a satellite called the TROPOspheric Monitor Instrument (TROPOMI). This instrument can measure methane in any 12-mile block of the atmosphere day-by-day.

Lauvaux claims that TROPOMI detected methane emissions that were not in the official estimates. He says, “No one anticipates that pipelines can sometimes be wide open, pouring gasoline into the atmosphere.”

They were. They were. The researchers logged more than 1,800 methane bursts over the period of 2019 and 2020. These large bursts often released several tons of methane every hour. Lauvaux and colleagues published their findings in Science this week.

Researchers consulted gas companies to find out the source of these “ultra emitting events.” Some releases were accidental. They were more often deliberate, however. Before carrying out repairs or maintenance, gas companies simply vented the gas from their pipelines.

Lauvaux claims that these releases can be avoided. There is equipment that allows for gas to be captured and removed before it can be repaired. He says, “It is possible to do it completely.” It takes time, staff, and resources. It’s possible. Absolutely.”

The former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan and Russia were the most common countries to experience methane bursts. Lauvaux claims that they discovered relatively few releases in other countries with large gas industries like Saudi Arabia.

The researchers found that large methane releases from oil and gas infrastructure accounted for between 8-12% of global methane emission.

Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, has stated that these dramatic methane releases are quite alarming. It’s important to also remember the 90% of other emissions that come from oil and natural gas facilities. He says, “They really do matter.”

EDF plans to launch its own satellite for methane detection in approximately a year. It will be sharper and show smaller leaks. Others are also developing methane detectors.

Hamburg claims that the new monitoring network will change the conversation on methane emissions. Hamburg says that historically, no one was able to tell where methane came from. “That’s why we haven’t taken the global action we should.” Hamburg says it was “just out of sight, but out of mind”. It will no longer be. It will be completely visible.”

He believes that this will increase pressure on oil companies to fix the leaks.