Russian coal mine responsible for massive methane leaks

A remote sensing satellite has detected one of the largest methane releases from a single industrial site, an underground coal mine in south-central Russia. The discovery is another indication of the scale of the problem of reducing emissions of methane, a potent gas that warms the planet.

Thirteen gas plumes were observed at the Raspadskya mine, Russia’s largest coal mine, in late January during a single pass by a satellite operated by GHGSat, a commercial emissions monitoring company. The total flow rate of all plumes was estimated to be about 87 metric tons (about 95 US tons) per hour.

“It’s the biggest source we’ve ever seen,” said Brody Wight, director of energy, landfills and mining at GHGSat, which was established in 2011 and now has six emission detection satellites. In contrast, the highest rate measured at Aliso Canyon, a natural gas storage facility in Southern California that experienced a major leak for nearly four months in 2015 and 2016, was about 60 metric tons per hour.

“It’s a really big fish,” said Felix Vogel, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada in Toronto, which is not affiliated with GHGSat.

Mr Wight said it was unclear how long discharges continued at this rate at the mine. But several previous satellite passes had detected emissions of tens of tons per hour. “We’ve seen a pretty steady increase in coming from this site overall,” he said.

If the flow were continuous at 87 metric tons of methane per hour, the total annual emissions would be equivalent to those of five average coal-fired power plants, the company said.

Mr Wight said the releases were most likely deliberate because the Raspadskya mine, like other coal mines, has natural methane-rich pockets in the middle of coal seams. A buildup of methane at the mine in 2010 caused an explosion that killed 66 people.

To reduce methane concentrations, large fans draw air into and through the mine, venting the methane into the atmosphere.

Methane has a greater warming effect than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas emitted by human activities. In two decades, methane can lead about 80 times the warming of the same amount of carbon dioxide.

Methane emissions are much lower than carbon dioxide emissions, and molecules break down much faster. But because of methane’s warming potential, reducing intentional or accidental emissions of the gas is seen as a way to more quickly limit global warming this century.

At the global climate talks in Glasgow last fall, more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, although Russia and some other big emitters were not among them .

Until recently, accurate measurement of emissions from specific industrial sites such as mines, oil and gas production facilities and landfills could only be done using equipment on the ground or in aircraft. . This limited the number of sites that could be surveyed.

While detection on the ground and in the air is still carried out, satellites can now easily monitor much larger areas. However, most of these satellites have a relatively coarse resolution, which means that while they can detect gas over an area in volumes similar to or greater than that measured at the Russian mine, they cannot reduce emissions to specific sites. GHGSat satellites are part of a new generation with a much finer resolution.

Dr Vogel said that with these new satellites, “we now have tools to allow us to get actionable insights”.

“They allow you to really drill down to the scale of the facility, to see specific parts of the facility where the emissions are happening,” he said. “You can tell companies where to go to fix something.”

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