A satellite has detected massive leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from natural gas plants and pipelines. Most of these releases are deliberate, resulting from sloppy pipeline repairs.



New evidence collected from satellites finds oil and gas companies are venting huge amounts of methane into the air. It's a routine part of the operations, releasing a greenhouse gas. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: There are official estimates of methane emissions from gas drilling and pipelines. But Thomas Lauvaux, a researcher with the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France, says those estimates seem to be missing something.

THOMAS LAUVAUX: For years, every time we had data, we were flying over an area. We were driving around. We always found more emissions than we were supposed to see.

CHARLES: So scientists turned to satellites. The European Space Agency launched one three years ago that can measure the methane in any 12-square-mile block of the atmosphere day by day. Lauvaux says it detected things that the official estimates did not anticipate.

LAUVAUX: No one expects that pipelines sometimes are wide open, pouring gas in the atmosphere.

CHARLES: Yet they were, releasing tons of it per hour. Lauvaux and his colleagues counted 1,800 big bursts of methane in two years and published their results this week in the journal Science. The countries where this happened most often included Turkmenistan, Russia and the United States. Lauvaux says most of these big releases were deliberate. People simply vented gas before they carried out repairs around pipelines or at gas processing plants. And he says it could be avoided.

LAUVAUX: It can totally be done. We have no-bleed or low-bleed valve. I mean, these are systems they can install. It takes time for sure for them, resources and stuff. But it's doable. Absolutely.

CHARLES: These big gas venting episodes accounted for 8 to 12% of all the methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure worldwide. That's big. But Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, says don't forget about the other 90 percent.

STEVEN HAMBURG: The bulk of it are going to be less dramatic, but they really matter.

CHARLES: Hamburg's organization plans to launch a satellite next year that will take much sharper pictures, showing smaller leaks. Other organizations are setting up their own sensors. And Hamburg says this will totally change the methane conversation. In the past, nobody really knew where it was coming from.

HAMBURG: And that's part of the reason we haven't taken the - globally, the action we should because it just sort of out of sight, out of mind. Well, it no longer will be. It will be totally visible.

CHARLES: He thinks it'll put pressure on the world's oil and gas companies to stop those leaks.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.