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Countries and startups tackling “low-hanging fruit” of methane leaks and gas-flaring emissions

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

gas flare against orange and red sky and illustration of an oil drill
Gas flare in Ludwigshafen, Germany with illustration by Nate Merritt // Image Credit: Georg Buzin -

According to calculations from Bloomberg’s think tank, Ember, not only are methane emissions supercharging the climate crisis, but they are, as Bloomberg’s Aaron Clark puts it, “some of the lowest hanging fruit in the fight against climate change.”

When compared to the all-too-popular carbon dioxide, methane has a short-term climate impact 82.5 times larger than CO2, meaning that in the EU, for example, methane leaks from coal mines alone have a greater impact on climate change than the Union’s total annual emissions.

In fact, the planet-warming potential of these leaks is so great, that according to estimates by the International Energy Agency, the about 42 million tonnes of methane leaked from coal mines in 2022 (which was a whopping third of total methane emissions) is greater than the combined CO2 from all the world’s shipping and aviation.

Plenty of methane is also intentionally released through the fossil fuel industry’s practice of gas flaring, which is burning so-called “excess gas,” which as the World Bank puts it, “takes place due to a range of issues including due “to a lack of appropriate regulation and political will.”

The amount of gas wasted by flaring is so great, that according to the World Bank’s estimates, the amount of gas currently flared each year – about 140 billion cubic meters – could power the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa.

Let’s read that again: oil and gas companies burn their excess gas which could completely power a region on a continent where 43% of the total population does not have access to electricity, with the majority of them residing in countries south of the Sahara.

FootPrint Coalition-backed Crusoe Energy, a gas flaring mitigation company out of Denver, Colorado, takes it a step further: positing that not only can the energy wasted from gas flares power the entire African continent, but the methane emissions avoidance potential is three times that the avoided grid emissions of solar and wind combined.

Crusoe is addressing the climate impact caused by flaring emissions by converting it into cheap electricity to power a range of data services.

And they aren’t the only ones. According to Clark at Bloomberg, the cheapest solution to global warming — methane leaks and gas flaring emissions — is finally getting the global attention it deserves.

As the IEA puts it, “widespread deployment of abatement measures should still be a priority, especially given the risk that coal demand remains high in the coming years.”

Gas flare with illustrations of robert downey jr. in a construction hat
Gas flare with illustrations by Nate Merritt // Image Credit: Joshua Doubek

That’s why countries are partnering together and enacting new laws to curb these low-hanging emissions: from new rules in the EU to cutting the emissions seeping out of coal mines — concrete action that‘s coming out of the COP26-era Global Methane Pledge — to talks between the U.S. and Turkmenistan, a reclusive central Asian state that is silently home to the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves, to curb its methane leaks.

The methane intensity in Turkmenistan is so great that its equal to that of Iran, Russia, the United States, China, and Iraq combined. However, if the U.S. and Turkmenistan are able to reach a deal, Bloomberg reports that not only could it be a boost for the global energy supply, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (which has caused energy shockwaves throughout Europe) but it could be a model for other deals focused on methane.

As the U.S. works to provide financial and technical support to Turkmenistan’s efforts, similar things can be done to help South Africa, Indonesia, and Vietnam move away from coal-fired power, and maybe even entice Algeria, which ties with Iran for the third most methane emissions from oil and gas production.

Still, as the U.S. works to curb emissions internally, there’s still work to be done at home, as the U.S. has the third largest coal consumption in the world, behind China and India, and the Texas Permian Basin, and other sites throughout the country, definitely hold their own in terms of flaring emissions.

Different solutions are taking off around the world.

According to Ember methane analyst Sabina Assan, European coal mines already control or capture much of the methane spewing from their mines. However, they often fail to combust or process it and ship it to markets. The new EU rules could slash the bloc’s emissions by 40% by just asking mines to improve their systems.

Operating in the States, Crusoe’s solution is backed by a high-availability, high-bandwidth core network in the Williston Basin region of Montana and North Dakota. Right now, it is focusing on diverting and converting the methane emissions of several companies and using them to power data centers. Per its 2022 ESG report, the company has diverted over 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas from flaring since the company launched in 2018, resulting in over 750,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions avoided.

That year, it launched its 180th data center and expanded its operations internationally into the Middle East.

Crusoe isn’t the only startup targetting methane emissions.

Another Colorado-based company, University of Colorado-Boulder-spin out LongPath Technologies, continuously monitors methane leaks using laser systems, that they say dramatically reduce the cost of leak detection for operators.

It can precisely find the location and size of the leak using a laser that emits an invisible, eye-safe beam made up of over 100,000 different light wavelengths, finding the infrared “fingerprint” or methane, CO2, and other gases, detecting changes in the contestation of methane to a degree of sensitivity that the startup says is like pinpointing a single drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Another startup, Germany’s Orbio Earth, also provides emissions data for methane, which they say that despite the emission reduction technologies that are well established, reliable emissions data for the global scales of methane-emitting assets remains a bottleneck.

However, instead of lasers, Orbio uses satellite data to detect methane emissions, combining it with algorithms to fill the global methane gap with equipment-level emissions intelligence.

Partnering with big names like Microsoft and Google, the startup is focusing on identifying persistent emitters from large portfolios and using the data to inform how operators can change. According to Orbio, its tech is necessary because currently, most satellite detection operators only focus on regions rather than being able to zoom in on specific assets.

According to Bloomberg’s analysis, many global measures are shifting toward climate action on methane emissions. Since the U.S. and E.U. made methane a top issue ahead of COP26 in 2021, with the Global Methane Pledge that agrees to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, they both have enrolled countries in their efforts.

While the analysis notes that that goal is unlikely to be met, technologies will be necessary to continue efforts through the due date, as when it comes to climate mitigation late is always better than never.


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