European Satellite Data Reveals Extreme Methane Emissions in US Oil & Gas Field

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(LONDON – April 22, 2020) A new scientific paper built on European Space Agency data shows oil and gas production in America’s sprawling Permian basin is releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at a 15 times higher rate than targets set by global producers including Shell and BP. The study was authored by scientists from Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Harvard University, Georgia Tech and the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research.

“These are the highest emissions ever measured from a major U.S. oil and gas basin. There’s so much methane escaping from Permian oil and gas operations that it nearly triples the 20-year climate impact of burning the gas they’re producing,” said co-author Dr. Steven Hamburg, Chief Scientist at EDF. “These findings demonstrate the rapidly growing ability of satellite technology to track emissions like these and to provide the data needed by both companies and regulators to know where emissions reductions are needed.”

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Based on 11 months of satellite data encompassing 200,000 individual readings taken across the 160,000 square-kilometer basin by the ESA’s TROPOMI instrument from May 2018 to March 2019, the researchers estimate a 3.7% methane loss rate from Permian oil and gas operations. The wasted methane – which is the main component in natural gas – is enough to supply 2 million U.S. households.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, human emissions of which cause over a quarter of today’s warming. Reducing methane from oil and gas operations is the fastest, most cost-effective way to slow the rate of warming, even as the necessary transition to a net-zero carbon economy continues.

Implications for Europe

“At a time when Europe is debating gas’ role in the energy transition, Europe’s own satellite shows natural gas production can be a significant source of methane pollution,” said Poppy Kalesi, Environmental Defense Fund, Global Energy Policy Director. “It’s a fact we cannot ignore.”

“The EU has a clear duty to set standards for the gas it consumes. Without a strong methane policy, there is no assurance that gas is making a positive contribution in the transition to a net zero greenhouse gas future,” added Kalesi.

About half of all internationally traded gas is consumed by Europe, and EU imports are increasing. The EU sources its gas from countries like Russia, the US, and Algeria, nations all with sizeable methane emissions, according to International Energy Agency’ Methane Tracker database.

Satellite technology opens new doors

Launched in 2017, the TROPOMI instrument used in this study offers more precise measurements, higher resolution, and better coverage than prior satellites. It is part of an emerging ecosystem of methane-tracking satellites with a growing range of capabilities, including one with even higher precision currently being developed by EDF subsidiary MethaneSAT LLC for launch in 2022. MethaneSAT will track oil and gas methane around the globe on a near-weekly basis, identifying and measuring smaller emission events and more widely dispersed sources not discernable with current technology.

“Advances in satellite technology and data analytics are creating the ability to generate regular and robust information on methane emissions from oil and gas operations even from the most remote corners of the world,” said Mark Brownstein, EDF Senior Vice President for Energy. “It’s our goal to use this new data to help companies and countries find, measure, and reduce methane emissions further and faster, and enable the public to both track and compare progress.”

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