Satellites spot the biggest methane sources. (They’re not cows.)

New Scientist looks down from on high with Europe’s Tropomi satellite and finds clusters of climate-altering methane “super emitters” – places where the greenhouse gas is leaking out from petroleum facilities in the Turkmenistan, Russia, and the U.S.:

These ultra-emitters were spotted pumping out more than 25 tonnes of methane an hour. That’s “a heck of a lot”, says Steve Hamburg at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a US non-profit organisation. Collectively, these contribute about 8 million tonnes of methane a year, about a tenth of the oil and gas industry’s total annual emissions for 2019-20.

Turkmenistan was the biggest ultra-emitter, releasing more than a million tonnes of methane between 2019 and 2020. Russia was second at just under a million tonnes, followed by the US, Iran, Algeria and Kazakhstan.

The US count is probably low because it excluded a major oil and gas region, the Permian basin, due to monitoring difficulties. By contrast to these countries, other major oil producing countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, had very few ultra-emitters.

Drew Shindell at Duke University in North Carolina, part of the team behind the analysis, says the big differences between countries gives hope that bad practice – where gas is released to the atmosphere for pipe repairs rather than pumped to another section of pipe – can be improved. “It shows if we put some effort in, we can have hardly any leaks or intentional releases that are large enough to be seen from space,” he says.

The study also found that ultra-emitting sites are releasing so much methane, which could be sold, that it should be cost effective to solve. For the six worst countries, tackling those plumes should cost up to $300 less per tonne than it would typically cost to reduce methane from oil and gas facilities in those nations. “Getting rid of these would be very inexpensive,” says Shindell.


You can read more about the methane-spotting research here, in Science.