Large methane cloud in Iraq coincided with gas pipeline leak

Gas flaring Source: iStock/bashta

A pipeline run by Oil Pipelines Co. in Iraq leaked liquefied petroleum gas on July 20, close to where a large plume of the super-potent greenhouse gas methane was detected.

The accident lasted less than a few hours and didn’t release any methane, according to an official with the state-run company who confirmed the leak. Liquefied petroleum gas is largely made up of propane and butane, but often also contains small amounts of methane and ethane. It is shipped as a liquid in pipelines and turns into gas at normal atmospheric temperature and pressure. 

The cloud of methane was detected by Kayrros SAS, a Paris-based geoanalytics firm that parses European Space Agency satellite data to track down emissions. It occurred roughly 140 kilometres west of Basrah. Kayrros estimated the release happened at a rate of 73 tons of methane an hour; it can’t determine the duration of a release based on a single satellite observation.

Iraq is one of the world’s top oil producers and was the fifth-biggest emitter of methane last year among a selected group of its peers, according to the International Energy Agency. The greenhouse gas is more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth in its first couple decades if released directly into the atmosphere. Stopping leaks is one of the most significant things that can be done right now to slow global warming that’s already reached dangerous levels. 

Oil Pipelines Co.’s protocol when a leak occurs is to shut the pipeline down and immediately fix it, the official said. The July plume followed two other methane observations in Iraq on June 23 and June 24, located about halfway between Basrah and Baghdad, with estimated emissions rates of 181 and 197 tons of methane an hour, respectively. That two plumes were found at the same spot over consecutive days suggests they were part of a single event that lasted 24 hours or longer, according to Kayrros.

If the release lasted 24 hours at 180 tons of methane an hour, it would have the same planet-warming impact as the average annual emissions of more than 200,000 cars in the U.K. Other than Oil Pipelines Co., Thiqar Oil Co. is the only other major company that owns Iraq’s fossil-fuel infrastructure in that area. It said the releases weren’t from its operations. An official for Iraq’s oil ministry said releases can occur from pipelines because of corrosion, as well as illegal tapping by unauthorized parties.

Satellite detection of methane plumes from natural gas supply chains has revealed a greater climate impact than previously thought from the fossil fuel long promoted by producers as a bridge to renewables. A steep reduction in methane emissions is considered one of the cheapest and easiest ways to slow the increase in global temperatures, according the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published earlier this month.

Multiple studies show that methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure are often higher than what operators and governments report. Previous Bloomberg Green reporting on methane plumes based on Kayrros data has led to public acknowledgement of releases from Kazakhstan and Russia. Public and private satellite data are helping spot methane plumes in countries including Canada and Australia.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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