Kuwait’s state oil producer said its monitoring systems never registered a three-week methane leak that was observed by satellite last year, adding to a growing body of evidence that emissions of the super-warming greenhouse gas are being underreported worldwide.
Halting intentional and accidental releases of methane, the primary component of natural gas, could do more to slow climate change than almost any other single measure. When emitted directly into the air, it has more than 80 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide during its first 20 years, and is responsible for about 30 percent of the Earth’s warming since pre-industrial times.
Yet many countries lack robust methane reporting requirements and scientists are only beginning to pinpoint the full extent of the challenge with the help of a new generation of satellites that are able to identify leaks and trace them to specific assets.
High-resolution images from the Sentinel-2 satellite analyzed by geoanalytics firm Kayrros SAS show seven distinct methane clouds over a 20-day period in October that appear to be coming from a burn pit associated with Kuwait’s Burgan oilfield. Burn pits are places where oil and gas can be piped to depressurize systems and avoid a dangerous buildup of the combustible fuels.
Kuwait Oil Co.’s surveillance system publishes data every five minutes to the country’s Environment Public Authority but the company said the three closest monitoring stations to the pit in question — located 7.5, 9 and 19 kilometers (11.8 miles) away — didn’t detect fluctuations exceeding the allowable limits.
“We don’t have a methane detector at that particular place, but we have several up and downwind from the location,” Kuwait Oil Co. Chief Executive Officer Ahmad al-Eidan told Bloomberg after reviewing the satellite images. “Through the whole month of October, they didn’t report any leak.
The findings reinforce concerns that global methane releases from oil and gas are more prevalent than many producers and governments disclose—in part because they may not fully grasp the extent of their own emissions. The energy industry is responsible for about 35 percent of global methane emissions generated from human activity, second only to agriculture.
Kuwait Petroleum Corp. is listed among 30 fossil fuel companies responsible for more than 40 percent of the methane discharged by the world’s energy sector, according to a November report from non-profit Global Energy Monitor. The company released an estimated 700,000 metric tons of methane in 2019, according to the analysis, which would have the same warming impact over a 20-year period as the annual emissions of roughly 12.8 million US cars.
Kuwait Oil, a unit of Kuwait Petroleum, disputed those estimates and said its own emissions were below 10,000 metric tons in 2019 and had come down since. Despite its planet-warming potency, efforts to reduce methane emissions have only come into focus in recent years. The Gulf Arab country is among 150 that have committed to slashing methane emissions 30 percent by the decade’s end from 2020 levels under the Global Methane Pledge.
Kuwait Oil already has 13 environmental stations that check for 31 pollutants including methane. It is in the process of improving its monitoring systems, al-Eidan said, as part of efforts to reach net zero by 2050. The company is also considering signing up with companies that offer remote-sensing satellite capabilities to help monitor releases that may currently escape notice.
Although flaring methane into carbon dioxide isn’t ideal and still contributes to global warming, it has a reduced effect. Kuwait Oil mostly operates engineered burn pits with auto ignition but has some that require manual lighting with a flare gun. The latter type are more likely to allow gases like methane to escape into the atmosphere, according to Scot Smith, director of flares at Zeeco Inc., an Oklahoma-based company that engineers and manufactures combustion devices for hydrocarbons systems.
Kuwait Oil said it wasn’t feasible to have automatic ignition for burn pits in more remote locations, but couldn’t explain if that was the source of the October release.” If you have any major leak and it’s not detected, it’s a real mystery for us, al-Eidan said. “We’re not hiding anything.”