A private company that uses satellites to track sources of methane emissions around the world said on Wednesday it detected one of the largest man-made releases of the powerful greenhouse gas ever seen, coming from a coal mine in Russia earlier this year.
Montreal-based GHGSat said one of its satellites, known as “Hugo”, observed 13 methane plumes at the Raspadskaya mine in Siberia on January 14. The incident likely released about 90 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere within an hour, the company calculated.
“It was a really, really dramatic show,” Brody Wight, GHGSat’s director of energy, landfills and mining, told The Associated Press.
Reducing methane emissions from fossil fuel installations has become a priority for governments looking to take quick and effective action against climate change. This is because methane is a powerful heat-trapping gas second only to carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere longer.
GHGSat said the plumes detected at Raspadskaya may have been released intentionally, as a safety precaution, as gas can seep out of the mines and ignite with life-threatening consequences. Two methane explosions and a fire killed 91 people at this mine in 2010, one of the worst such disasters in the post-Soviet era.
Companies can prevent the uncontrolled release of methane through best practices. The captured gas can be burned as fuel, reducing its impact on global warming.
GHGSat said it measured further plumes over the mine in subsequent flybys in the following weeks, although these did not reach the same scale of “ultra emissions” seen on January 14.
“Even if it’s only for a short time, it doesn’t take long for it to become a meaningful show,” Wight said.
Manfredi Caltagirone, who heads the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Methane Emissions Observatory, said he was not aware of any larger release of methane from a coal mine.
“If this event is the result of a buildup of methane which was then released all at once instead of over several days, the environmental impact would be the same as if a smaller plume were to be released continuously over several days” , Caltagirone said. , which did not participate in the GHGSat observation.
“But from a security point of view, it’s worrying,” he said, citing recent mine explosions in Poland that killed 13 people.
Still, the release was likely a very rare event, otherwise other methane-measuring satellites would have detected them as well, Caltagirone said.
GHGSat said it alerted the operator of the Raspadskaya mine to its findings, but received no response. The operator also did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Several private and government satellites have been launched into orbit in recent years to help locate methane leaks and raise awareness of the risks they pose to the climate and people’s health.
In one of the most publicized methane leaks in the United States, a 2015 blowout at a natural gas storage facility in California sickened residents of the San Fernando Valley and prompted the evacuation of 8,000 homes.
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