Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

Methane leaks: A new way to find and fix in real time

Methane leaks: A new way to find and fix in real time

Researchers have flown aircraft over an oil and gas field and pinpointed—with unprecedented precision—sources of the greenhouse gas methane in real time.

The technique led to the detection and immediate repair of two leaks in natural gas pipelines in the Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest. The approach could inform strategies for meeting new federal limits on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Methane emissions have spiked in recent decades along with the boom in natural gas drilling.

“If there’s a desire to identify and address the largest methane emitters, our approach provides a way to do that. The method shows that you can easily fly over an area and actually see the plumes in real time,” said Eric Kort, assistant professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan and co-author on a paper about the research published in today's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kort collaborated on deploying the new approach, which was developed by Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology. The overall project is led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The team previously used satellite measurements to identify the Four Corners region as a hotbed for methane emissions. The new work builds on the previous finding by zooming in on the region with enough detail to pinpoint individual methane plumes instead of giving an averaged view for an area many miles wide.

Methane is the primary component of natural gas, but when it’s released directly into the air, it’s a potent greenhouse agent that plays a role in warming the planet. The Obama administration has set targets of cutting methane emissions by up to 45 percent of 2012 levels by 2025. In May, the EPA released the first round of regulations. To meet the goals, however, the sources of so-called fugitive methane emissions must be found.

For a long time, there’s been a discrepancy between methane levels measured from point sources on the ground, and levels measured higher in the atmosphere, said co-author Colm Sweeney, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, working in the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory. The atmosphere holds stores of the gas whose sources on the ground are difficult to locate. This new detection technique can help locate them.

Read the rest of this story from the University of Michigan

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.


Karin Vergoth
CIRES communications
Nicole Casal Moore
University of Michigan media relations
(734) 647-7087
Colm Sweeney
CIRES/NOAA scientist, study co-author
(303) 497-4771

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