On January 13, 2019, while trying to measure the greenhouse gas output of a mud volcano in Turkmenistan, a microwave-size satellite known as Claire stumbled upon something unexpected: an enormous cloud of methane spilling into frame from an area just south of the peak. “We couldn’t believe something that large was actually there,” says Stephane Germain, the CEO and co-founder of GHGSat, the Montreal-based company that operates Claire. Curious as to where it could be coming from, Germain and colleagues looked at images of the area and zeroed in on a gas facility called Korpezhe. The source of the pollution seemed to be a pipeline.
Through diplomatic channels, the company passed the information to Turkmen officials. Flying over Korpezhe a few months later, Claire found the plumes had disappeared. The assumption is that they’d come from leaky equipment that site managers had been able to patch.
Claire’s discovery points to a novel means of solving a mystery that has far-reaching implications for the climate: What are the specific sources that are contributing to a dangerous increase in the powerful greenhouse gas methane, whose atmospheric concentration has nearly doubled in less than 70 years?
The value of the gas that drillers leak hits $2 billion annually, according to estimates published in Science. A June 2020 report from the independent research group Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that Texas oil companies wasted $749 million venting methane in 2018; the Texas Railroad Commission, the state regulator with oversight, declined to take action. In fact, the International Energy Agency says the global industry could reduce methane leaks by 75 percent—about a third of it at no net cost, since it could finance the fixes by selling much of what it recovers.