June 5, 2023
China, Covid-19, Coronavirus

High-resolution satellite-observed methane plumes in northeast China

A high-resolution satellite image taken less than 48 hours ago appears to show methane emissions from China’s largest oil field. The image is the first in a series of unique observations that Bloomberg Green will publish during COP27 from GHGSat Inc., which monitors emissions.

The detection highlights the rapidly growing ability of satellites to detect and track methane nearly anywhere in the world, ushering in a new era of climate transparency where greenhouse gases are measured and attributed in near real time to individual assets and companies. Reducing emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas, which has 84 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in its first two decades in the atmosphere, is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to cool the planet, researchers say.

Methane is the main component of natural gas and causes about 30% of global warming. Leaks can occur during the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels, but methane is also routinely produced as a byproduct of oil and coal production, and if operators don’t have the infrastructure to bring the gas to market, they can release it into the atmosphere. The International Energy Agency has called on oil and gas operators to halt all non-emergency methane extraction.

A satellite image taken at 1:15 p.m. Beijing time on Nov. 4 shows six methane releases in northeastern China from the Daqing oil field, according to GHGSat. The estimated emissions ranged from 446 to 884 kilograms per hour and the cumulative proportion was 4,477 kilograms per hour, the Montreal-based company said. If the emissions persisted for an hour at this rate, they would have the same short-term climate impact as the annual emissions of about 81 US cars.

PetroChina, which operates the Daqing oil field, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment outside normal business hours on Sunday. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment on Sunday.

China is the world’s largest source of energy-related methane emissions, with an estimated 28 million tons last year, according to the International Energy Agency’s Methane Tracker. Russia was second and the United States third with 18 million and 17 million tons.

China is the world’s largest producer of coal, the fourth largest producer of natural gas and the sixth largest producer of crude oil. The country has so far refused to join the Global Methane Pledge, a US-EU-led initiative that aims to cut emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas by 30 percent by the end of this decade from 2020 levels. So far, more than 120 countries have joined the effort.

More and more companies and institutions are launching multispectral satellites that can detect the unique property of methane. GHGSat has six satellites in orbit now dedicated to monitoring industrial methane and plans to launch five more by the end of next year. The US nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund plans to launch MethaneSAT in 2023, and a consortium that includes Carbon Mapper, the State of California, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Planet Labs plans to launch two satellites next year.

According to the IEA, about 40 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions come from the energy sector, and more than 40 percent of oil and gas emissions could be reduced at no net cost using existing technologies. This is because the recovered gas can be sold as a product and burned for energy or heating. Methane is the main component of natural gas.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, atmospheric methane concentrations were the highest on an annual basis since measurements began four decades ago.

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