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A team of scientists used satellite data to detect methane plumes from an offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the first time that individual methane plumes from offshore platforms have been mapped from space.

Methane is the second most abundant anthropogenic greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, but it is more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, over a 100-year period. Mitigating methane emissions from the extraction, processing and transportation of fossil fuels is one of the most effective ways to slow global warming.

Satellite methods have proven essential for the detection and quantification of this type of emission. However, despite the rapid development of satellite-based methane plume detection methods above land, there is still a large observation gap regarding emissions from offshore oil and gas operations – which account for around 30% of the world production.

This is mainly due to the weak reflection of water in the short wave infrared wavelengths used for remote sensing of methane. This limits the amount of light reaching the sensor which subsequently makes it difficult to distinguish methane emissions.

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Zaap-C platform

In a recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology Lettersa team, led by scientists from the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV), used data from the Maxar WorldView-3 satellite, obtained through ESA’s third-party mission program, and the US Landsat 8 mission to detect and quantify strong methane plumes coming from an offshore oil and gas production platform near the coast of Campeche – in one of Mexico’s main oil fields.

These results are part of a study led by Christian Retscher, an atmospheric scientist at ESA’s Earth Observation Programs Directorate. The study received funding from the EO Science for Society component of ESA’s FutureEO program and ESA’s Living Planet Fellowship.

The team found that the platform released large volumes of methane during a 17-day ultra-emission event, which amounted to around 40,000 tonnes of methane released into the atmosphere in December 2021 .

These emissions are equivalent to approximately 3% of Mexico’s annual oil and gas emissions and this single event would be similar in magnitude to all of Mexico’s offshore region’s annual regional emissions.

The team then analyzed a longer time series of flaring activity at the site. The results of this analysis showed that this ultra-emitting event, probably related to abnormal process conditions, was a one-time incident with the longest duration since the start of flaring activity on this platform.

Zaap-C platform methane plume

Luis Guanter, from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, commented: “The results here show how satellites can detect methane plumes from offshore infrastructure. This represents a breakthrough in monitoring industrial methane emissions from space, as it opens the door to systematic monitoring of emissions from individual offshore platforms.

Itziar Irakulis-Loitxate, UPV scientist and lead author of the study, added: “In fact, we are now expanding this work to other offshore oil and gas producing regions around the world with Copernicus Sentinel- 2 and Landsat, with the former showing extremely promising results.

Christian Retscher commented: “The study demonstrates the increasing capabilities of detecting methane emissions from space at very high spatial resolution.

Yasjka Meijer, Mission Scientist for ESA’s upcoming Copernicus carbon dioxide monitoring mission, added: “Observations from satellites are essential for the detection and quantification of these man-made emissions.

Oil and gas extraction areas


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