(Bloomberg) – One of the most dangerous greenhouse gases is relentlessly entering the atmosphere from the easternmost edge of the European Union.
Invisible methane clouds are escaping from Romania’s oil fields, gas pipes, rusting storage containers and even a well next to a playground. The task of finding the leaking gas, which in the short term has more than 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide, is the job of James Turitto of the non-profit Clean Air Task Force. He found more than 70 leaks with a special infrared camera that can detect the odorless gas.
“It felt like every well in Romania was leaking,” said Turitto, who travels around Europe with the € 100,000 camera to track down fleeting publications. “Tanks were rusted. It was impossible to document all methane emissions. ”
The ubiquitous leaks from one of the EU’s largest oil and gas producers pose a challenge to European policymakers, who are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by the end of the decade. After CO₂, methane is the largest cause of global warming, but has so far hardly been regulated in Europe. While the bloc proposed a comprehensive package of measures to decarbonize its economy earlier this year, it has yet to pass comprehensive laws to combat methane.
“It’s literally under the radar,” said Antoine Vagneur-Jones, an analyst at research group BloombergNEF. “If the EU wants to drive a strong policy on this, it must also make an effort to tackle methane leaks in its own backyard.”
The EU is relatively free of large-scale methane leaks detected through satellite imagery in countries from Kazakhstan to Australia. In the past two years, these larger clouds – typically with emission rates in excess of 5 tons per hour – have only been sighted about a dozen times in Europe, compared to more than two thousand worldwide, according to estimates by the geoanalyser Kayrros SAS. Most of the European leaks were related to coal production in Poland.
But these so-called “super emitters” only make up about 10 to 15% of the total methane pollution caused by the gas and oil industry, says Kayrros. The rest comes from smaller sources. Stopping both small and large leaks is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to slow the rise in global temperatures. In some places this means preventing the targeted discharge of excess gas in oil, gas and coal production. Elsewhere it means modernizing pipelines and compressor stations to reduce fugitive emissions.
Turitto says his experience in Romania shows how easy the problem is to solve when companies are ready. For example, after sounding the alarm about a leak in a pipeline 75 kilometers west of Bucharest, engineers quickly arrived to fix the problem. With natural gas prices in Europe soaring to record levels this summer, every bit of methane companies can keep in their pipelines means more profit.
Most of the locations where Turitto has detected methane belong to OMV Petrom SA, the Romanian unit of OMV AG in Vienna. The footage shows a series of vents that release methane directly into the air. Other videos show rusting storage tanks with holes for gas to escape. A spokesman said the company has started investigating the locations highlighted by the footage and will take action.
Turitto has also detected methane at sites operated by companies such as Transgaz SA Medias, Oscar Downstream Srl, Amromco Energy and the state-owned Conpet SA Ploiesti. Conpet said their tests had shown no methane releases that exceeded legal limits and that Turitto broke the law by trespassing.
Amromco said the methane did not come from its gas facility based on GPS coordinates provided by Turitto. Transgaz said it was unable to immediately answer questions about the leaks due to the complexity of the information. Oscar Downstream did not respond. The Romanian Environmental Protection Agency sent inquiries to the companies.
Leaks were also found near residential areas. In the town of Campina, 60 miles north of the capital Bucharest, the camera saw smoke from two fountains surrounding a children’s playground in a residential complex. While methane is non-toxic to humans in limited quantities, other gases associated with oil and gas exploration, such as hydrogen sulfide, can have dangerous effects. Turitto says he can smell the fumes; a local resident told him that the area had always smelled like this.
The camera used by Turitto records gases over a range of wavelengths. Two technical experts who checked the footage said the vast majority of the gases detected were likely methane. The same technology is used by the oil and gas industry to detect leaks in their operations.
“Hydrocarbon emissions, likely including methane, are evident in the videos,” said Tim Doty, president of Texas-based TCHD Consulting LLC, one of the experts who reviewed some of the footage. “Of course, the pipelines, wells, and vents are likely emitting a significant amount of methane, which is a direct contributor to climate change.”
The race to contain methane has begun as a growing number of extreme weather events highlight the dangers of climate change. Floods and forest fires raged across Europe this summer, at a global temperature of just 1.2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Major COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in less than three months will determine whether the world can keep the rise to 1.5 ° C.
European policymakers are expected to propose legislation shortly that will force gas companies to monitor and report methane emissions and improve leak detection and repair. An EU spokesman said the bloc’s new measures would cover both intentional and unintentional leaks in the energy sector, and the proposals would target similar action internationally.
“We’re racing towards major tipping points in the climate system, things we don’t want to cross,” said Jonathan Banks, the Clean Air Task Force’s international political leader on methane. “If we just try to tackle CO₂ emissions, we will break through these tipping points and the climate will be irreversibly changed.”