Huge methane leak in Kazakhstan due to oil field accident

Huge methane leak in Kazakhstan due to oil field accident

An explosion at an oil drilling in Kazakhstan last year released a huge amount of the greenhouse gas methane into the air. It is the largest documented methane leak as a result of an accident to date, scientists deduce from satellite images. They write about it on the preprint serverEarthArXivwhich publishes articles early, before colleagues have reviewed them.

Methane (CH4) is a strong greenhouse gas. The Earth has warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius over the past century and a half, and about a third of this is due to the increased concentration of methane in the air. Major sources include the oil and gas industry (with a 40 percent share of all man-made methane emissions), and a growing livestock population.

At the 2021 climate summit in Glasgow, the United States and Europe, among others, agreed that global man-made methane emissions must be 30 percent lower by 2030 than in 2020. 155 countries have now joined this initiative. It focuses, among other things, on combating leaks in the oil and gas industry, which emits much more methane than countries are currently reporting. The International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report on this two years ago: the energy sector emits 70 percent more methane than countries report.

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The now reported spill occurred on land near the northeastern part of the Caspian Sea. The Buzachi Neft company had started an exploratory drilling there to determine whether oil could be extracted commercially. The fact that something had gone wrong was revealed, among other things, by the satellite that has the Dutch instrument Tropomi on board, says Bram Maasakkers, affiliated with the Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON) in Leiden, and one of the authors of the article.

Global observation

Tropomi has been measuring the concentrations of methane, ozone, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere since 2018. “The first time we saw a large methane plume at this oil field on the satellite images was on June 21,” says Maasakkers. The spill was subsequently reported to the International Methane Emission Observatory (IMEO), an initiative launched by the United Nations following the 2021 Glasgow Climate Summit, with the aim of better global monitoring of man-made methane emissions. Since the beginning of last year, IMEO has been running a system in which detected leaks are immediately reported to the countries or companies involved. They can then repair such a leak as quickly as possible.

The leak at the installation in Kazakhstan had already occurred on June 9, 2023

A reconstruction shows that the leak at the Kazakh oil field had already occurred on June 9. The explosion caused a fire. The idea was that the methane would not escape into the air, but would be flared (this produces CO2). According to reports in other media, Buzachi Neft initially denied that large amounts of methane were being blown into the air. The methane leak wouldn’t be too bad. But that turned out not to be the case. Maasakkers: “We saw that only a fraction of the methane released was converted through combustion.” It was not until December 25 that Buzachi Neft managed to close the leak.

In total, the researchers calculate that this leak released an estimated 127 kilotons of methane into the air. By comparison, the Netherlands reported man-made methane emissions of 677 kilotons for 2021 – mainly due to its large livestock population.

That 127 kilotons is more than any other methane leak detected by Tropomi and other satellites in recent years. Only the explosions of the Nordstream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, from Russia to Europe, released more methane, the researchers write. But that was probably sabotage, not an accident.

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