Methane emissions from oil and gas operations increased markedly this year despite ambitious industry targets to cut the amount of the dangerous greenhouse gas it releases into the atmosphere.

Analysis of satellite imagery shows that the number of methane emissions "hot spots" in oil and gas basins over the first eight months of 2020 was about 32% greater than in the same period last year, according to data analytics company Kayrros.

The increase “is thought to reflect the impact of changing operational practices with oil and gas operators in light of the global coronavirus pandemic and adjusted activity surrounding pipelines”, Kayrros said.

The company, which uses satellite data to track and measure emissions from energy industry sources, timed the announcement to coincide with the release of the European Union’s new methane strategy, which calls for better monitoring and measuring of emissions.

Kayrros pointed out to Upstream that the 32% increase reflects the number of methane emission events related to oil and gas activity, not the volume or intensity of the releases.

Regional hot spots identified

Methane has a much shorter life than carbon dioxide but is far more destructive in the near term. The energy sector — including coal, oil, natural gas and bioenergy — is the second-largest source of methane emissions, after agriculture.

Countries responsible for the largest increases this year in emissions hot spots — sources emitting more than 5 tonnes per hour — included the US, Russia, Algeria, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Iran, according to Kayrros.

Detected hot spots in Algeria, Russia and Turkmenistan rose by 40% over 2019 levels, outpacing the global average, the company said.

In 2019, the company tracked a combined volume of visible large methane leaks of 10 million tonnes, the equivalent of more than 800 tonnes of CO2 emitted over a 20-year period.

“Such increases in methane emissions are concerning and in stark contradiction to the direction set in the Paris Agreement of 2015,” Kayrros president Antoine Rostand said.

Search for answers

“Despite much talk of climate action by energy industry stakeholders, global methane emissions continue to increase steeply.”

Low gas prices in the pandemic’s wake could be partly to blame, as cash-strapped operators opt to vent methane rather than flare it, which is more costly.

Budget cuts at energy companies may also have led to fewer facility inspections and less frequent maintenance, and thus increased emissions.

The company said this year’s increase “may be driven by operational events such as well completions in shale plays and pipeline network maintenance”.

Rostand said more analysis will be required to determine more accurately the reasons for the increase in hot spots.

"We see from the sky, not on the ground, but what we are observing is the wrong trend. We should have expected decreases... but that has not been the case," he told Upstream.

Kayrros describes its Methane Watch surveillance technology as “an automated system that uses data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite and other satellites to detect, quantify and attribute large emissions of methane directly to their sources”.

The system can be used to help oil and gas companies meet the reporting requirements for their emissions reduction targets.

The Sentinel-5P satellite provides frequent methane concentration readings from major oil and gas basins around the world with a resolution of 5.5 kilometres by 7 kilometres. Kayrros said a methane leak of 5 tonnes per hour is roughly equal to 3.7 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year of continuous emission.