How secretive methane leaks are driving climate change

A new methane database

To track and measure methane emissions, the United Nations Environment Program in October 2021 launched the International Methane Emissions Observatory. It catalogs discharges from the fossil fuel sector, and soon waste and agricultural releases as well.

The oil and gas industries are major producers of methane, emitting the gas during drilling, production, and other parts of their operations. Methane is also sometimes intentionally released from oil and gas facilities for safety reasons.

The agriculture sector is also a large emitter of methane, particularly from livestock and the growing of certain foods, such as rice. Waste is the third most common man-made source of methane as bacteria break down organic matter in landfills.

The IMEO aims to create a public database of empirically verified methane emissions. Right now, countries often rely on estimates, which can sometimes be several magnitudes lower than actual emissions levels.

“A more accurate picture of methane emissions gives governments and companies the information they need to act with confidence,” said Mark Radka, Chief of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch. “This is true for both good policies and sound management practices.”

Measuring methane

  A cow and a researcher
A researcher at the Baden-Württemberg Agricultural Center in Germany holds a detector that measures methane emissions in the exhaled air of cows. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Warnack

“The big challenge is knowing exactly how much [methane] is being emitted, where it is being emitted and for how long it has been emitted to be able to reduce emissions to the level we need to,” said Manfredi Caltagirone, the head of the International Methane Emissions Observatory.

The best way to measure methane emissions is through the combination of operational knowledge and the use of methane quantification technologies, drones and sensor-equipped aircraft.

Satellites are also becoming an effective means of detecting and measuring large methane emissions. While using satellites is not always practical—as methane readings can be hidden by ambient conditions such as cloud cover, dense forests, or snow cover—they are particularly useful for detecting and quantifying super-emitter events like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. (According to the researchers, it appears, the massive leak was most likely caused by equipment malfunction.)

In fact, the team of scientists who discovered the super-emitter event in the Gulf of Mexico are in the process of expanding their work to offshore oil and gas production sites in other parts of the world.

If the current methane emission inventories are problematic, are they worth the trouble? For Giulia Ferrini, Program Management Officer at UNEP, the answer is a resounding yes, if some changes in approach are made.

According to her, keeping accurate and transparent inventories is instrumental in heading off climate change. Caltagirone and Ferrini believe that site specific, or asset-level, methane inventories based on measurements are an essential component of mitigation because the Paris Agreement is built on transparency and accountability. Collecting these asset-level data provides the necessary information to those who have the power to cut the emissions.


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