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Detecting Giant Methane Leaks

Authored by Robert Kleinberg Senior Fellow, ISE
Principal, Presidio Energy Technology

The New York Times recently put a spotlight on one of the biggest known methane leaks in recent years, a natural gas well blowout in Ohio that emitted about 120 metric tons of methane an hour for 20 days (Methane Leak, Seen From Space, Proves to Be Far Larger Than Thought). New satellite technology is for the first time giving us a more accurate understanding of just how much of this powerful greenhouse gas is leaking into our atmosphere.

The TROPOMI satellite did not discover the methane leak; it measured its size after analysts were alerted to the presence of the blowout. This is an important distinction. The TROPOMI satellite was not designed to find point sources, not even giant ones like the Ohio event cited in the Times article. We still don't know how many of these huge leaks go undetected.

Clip from Ohio State Highway Patrol video of natural gas well blowout published by The New York Times.

Fortunately, leak detection technology is improving, and in future years satellite detection of large greenhouse gas emissions may be feasible. Unfortunately, Trump administration policy discourages such improvements. In August, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed rescinding Obama-era rules mandating methane leak detection and repair at oil and natural gas facilities.

While scientists will no doubt continue their good work studying greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, American private enterprise may well be discouraged from developing and deploying the equipment needed to survey the million well sites and millions of miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States.

Dr. Kleinberg’s public submission to the Environmental Protection Agency details the technical basis for this commentary.

Robert L. Kleinberg is Principal of Presidio Energy Technology, a non-resident senior fellow of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, and adjunct senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy of Columbia University. He will speak on Technological Innovation and Environmental Regulation at the 2020 American Chemical Society National Meeting.

Related Commentary: Better Rules for Natural Gas Leak Detection and Repair

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.

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