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Satellite pinpoints major methane leak from Central Asian oilfield

26 November 2019

Montreal-based GHGSat Inc said on November 22 that one of its satellites had discovered a giant methane plume apparently deriving from unlit flaring in the Korpezhe oil and gas field in western Turkmenistan.

Central Asia at night - Image: Shutterstock
Central Asia at night - Image: Shutterstock

The company, which uses satellites and aircraft for the remote sensing of greenhouse gas (GHG) and other emissions into the atmosphere, said this was the first time a major gas leak had been detected from space. It said the methane leak from early last year through February was equivalent to the fumes of a million cars.

The satellite was searching for emissions from mud volcanoes when it captured the first discovery of an unknown industrial methane leak from space, GHGSat President Stephane Germain told Bloomberg.

The company then used US, Canadian and European diplomatic channels to alert the Turkmenistan field operator, Germain said. Recent images showed that the emissions had stopped by May, he added.

The find demonstrates how satellites can be used “to enable corrective action to fight climate change,” according to the research published by the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters journal. It comes at a time when the oil and gas industry faces mounting pressure to reduce emissions of methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases.

Flaring is the burning of unwanted natural gas released from oil fields, converting it into carbon dioxide and avoiding the release of methane. Often, high winds and equipment malfunctions can extinguish the flames.

GHGSat was capturing images scaled to 144 square kilometres in Central Asia to explore and calibrate emissions from naturally occurring mud volcanoes to compare to land-based measurements. Their satellite couldn’t detect the small quantities from the mud volcanoes but it did pick up on three unexplained bright spots nearby.

The second source appears to be from a pipeline, potentially due to a valve release, Germain said. A third smaller one, which also appears to be from an unlit flare, cropped up a few times.

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