Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril

On the morning of Friday, June 4, an underground gas pipeline running through the ancient state of Tatarstan sprang a leak. And not a small one.

In a different era, the massive leak might have gone unnoticed.

But a Washington Post photographer, using satellite imagery and tracking GPS coordinates, found a likely spot an hour’s walk from the nearest public roadway, 490 miles east of Moscow. There he saw a deep gash and tire tracks over an area half a football field in size, flanked by yellow signs warning of underground pipelines between stands of trees.

(Arthur Bondar for The Washington Post)

The episode reflects a fundamental shift in climate politics. Many countries and companies have long misrepresented or simply miscounted how much fossil fuel-based methane they have let escape into the air.

Now, new satellites devoted to locating and measuring greenhouse gases are orbiting Earth, with more on the way. These sentinels in the sky are auguring an era of data transparency as their patrons seek to safeguard the planet by closing the gap between the amount of methane that scientists know is in the atmosphere versus what is reported from the ground — industry by industry, pipeline by pipeline, leak by leak.

Satellites can provide real time evidence of massive, unreported methane leaks — and who is responsible for them. That information can help officials hold the polluting companies accountable or expose governments that hide or ignore dangerous emissions that are warming the world.

“The atmosphere doesn’t lie,” said Daniel Jacob, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University who uses satellite measurements to try to interpret the world’s methane emissions.

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The satellite revelations could further complicate a critical United Nations climate summit in Scotland in November, known as COP26, where world leaders will face pressure to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Many nations have yet to live up to the promises they made when they forged the Paris climate accord in 2015 — pledges that climate negotiators say are already too low to limit catastrophic warming.

Methane, the second-most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, accounts for roughly a quarter of global warming since the industrial revolution, according to NASA. It is the chief component of natural gas.

Today, the second-biggest natural gas producer is Russia, fed by the prolific Yamal region, followed by Iran and its Persian Gulf gas fields. Next come China, Canada and Qatar, with its flotilla of liquefied natural gas tankers. The United States, bolstered by horizontal fracking in the Permian Basin across west Texas and eastern New Mexico, remains the world’s largest natural gas producer.

Scientists say that rapidly cutting methane “is very likely to be the most powerful lever” to slow the rate of warming. But they have also documented a disturbing and surprising spike in atmospheric concentrations in recent years that they have not yet pinned down.

The methane mystery has also drawn the attention of climate negotiators, who will converge in Glasgow with methane near the top of the agenda. Ahead of those talks, the United States and Europe launched a Global Methane Pledge that aims to reduce methane emissions nearly a third by 2030. Dozens of nations, including nine of the world’s top 20 emitters, have signed onto the effort — but so far, Russia has not.

Given Russia’s sprawling oil and gas industry, climate summit watchers say persuading President Vladimir Putin to plug his nation’s leaking pipelines and dial back plans to grow natural gas exports will be important.

The White House’s chief climate negotiator, John F. Kerry, has spent hours with top Russian officials in search of a “road map,” said Ruslan Edelgeriyev, special presidential envoy on climate issues for the Russian Federation.

Edelgeriyev said that under new bylaws Russia’s methane requirements “will be stricter” because, unlike carbon dioxide, methane cannot be absorbed by forests. In a joint statement in July, the two nations agreed to cooperate on a wide range of climate issues, including limits on methane and the satellite monitoring of emissions.

“We are not trying to hide anything. We do realize that problems exist, and we are trying to find solutions,” Edelgeriyev said, conceding that “at the moment we do not have a complete picture of emissions.”

So far, Russia’s numbers don’t add up, a Post analysis has found:

• Russia claims that it emitted 4 million metric tons of methane from the oil and gas sector in 2019, the most recent year reported. But six studies and scientific emissions data sets reviewed by The Post, using various methods, found much higher annual numbers in recent years, in some cases two to three times as large. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organization set up in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, puts the country’s 2020 figure at nearly 14 million tons, which would make Russia the world’s largest emitter of oil and gas-based methane.

• The number of methane plumes emitted from the aging Russian gas infrastructure rose by at least 40 percent last year, even though natural gas exports to Europe fell an estimated 14 percent due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Kayrros. A recent scientific study found that a significant portion of Russia’s estimated annual methane releases are due to a relatively small number of catastrophic events like the one on June 4, frequently dubbed “super-emitters.”

• Russia has repeatedly revised its methods for calculating emissions, not only shrinking current figures but also rolling back past estimates. The year 2010 shows how Russia’s calculations have fluctuated wildly. In a succession of annual reports to the United Nations, Russia has changed its estimate for oil and gas methane emissions for that year from 15.4 million tons, to 31.5 million tons, to 24.7 million tons, to 23.6 million tons, to 6.5 million tons, and — most recently — 5.1 million tons.

Edelgeriyev said that Russia’s overall estimate of methane emissions had been “audited by international experts” and are “in accordance with an established procedure.” He said fugitive emissions from infrastructure failure and the difficulty of tracing them was one reason he proposed joint satellite monitoring.

As for the changing numbers, Anna Romanovskaya, a scientist and director of the government-organized Institute of Global Climate and Ecology, said the shifts reflect more accurate information. The most recent numbers are “a result of analysis of new data on methane emissions obtained directly from companies in the oil and gas sector,” she said in a statement.

Romanovskaya contends that Russia’s own figures for fossil-fuel methane emissions are “within the range” of those produced by satellites and reported by the Global Carbon Project, a respected academic consortium that analyzes and quantifies the world’s greenhouse gases. But while there are indeed a few low figures in the Global Carbon Project’s results that resemble Russia’s, most are considerably higher.

Expert reviewers at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, set up to stop “dangerous” human interference in the climate system, have challenged Russia’s numbers. In May, they questioned the country’s major downward revision of leaks from oil production — by over 90 percent — saying Russia “did not provide information on the significant decrease in the level of [methane] emissions” caused by its recalculations.

At the request of The Post, experts from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Harvard sought to measure Russia’s recent emissions using a technique called atmospheric “inversion,” drawing on 22 months of infrared data collected by the Sentinel-5P satellite. For an enormous area covering much of Russia’s largest oil and gas region, they estimated 7.6 million tons of methane emissions per year — and for the entire country, 8.3 million tons. That’s more than twice as high as Russia’s latest reported figure.

The Paris agreement is voluntary, and there is no international mechanism for cracking down on greenhouse gases contaminating the Earth’s air.

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But that might be changing. European regulators are planning to open a new front in trade wars, imposing import taxes to penalize companies that sell natural gas in Europe while leaving behind a trail of leaked methane.

“If they want to continue to export to the European Union, then they must clean up the production methods that they are using. And this applies to every country that is exporting to the E.U.,” said Brendan Devlin, strategy adviser to the European Commission, the European Union’s executive body.

Scientists and regulators agree that one surefire way to have a fast impact on global warming is to locate and slash fugitive emissions of methane derived from coal, oil and gas. Methane is most heavily concentrated in the atmosphere during the first decade or so after release. Over 20 years, its warming impact is more than 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Capturing methane in the oil and gas sector is technologically simple, usually cheap and can reward companies that currently dump gas into the atmosphere. Cutting carbon dioxide in the energy sector, by contrast, is a massive undertaking; it would require, for example, owners of the world’s 1.4 billion cars to go electric.

The International Energy Agency, part of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, has said oil and gas companies could cut methane emissions by 75 percent using currently available technology. That matters, because time is running short.

“This must be the year for action — the make it or break it year,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech in April, one of many occasions he has pushed leaders to move more quickly on climate action. “This is truly a pivotal year for humanity’s future.”

At an online event, Devlin said that if the world stopped emitting all the methane it possibly could, the planet would limit global warming by 0.3 degrees Celsius by 2050.

“Although that may not sound like a great deal, it’s about one-third of everything we need in order to keep the global temperature within the 1.5 scenario set out in the Paris agreement,” Devlin said. “Doing something now on methane can reduce the global warming effect of our lifestyles, very quickly and with appreciable results by 2050, and it only involves doing things we know we can do today.”

It’s simple, he said. “It’s basically plumbing.”

Shrouded in secrecy

The heart of Russia’s massive natural gas business lies in a remote peninsula bigger than Pennsylvania that sits north of the Arctic Circle, where gas fields and the traditional routes for reindeer herds intersect every summer. Russia’s Yamal Peninsula in Siberia hosts 18 fields belonging to the state-owned Gazprom. They produced 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas last year — 2.5 percent of global output.

The conditions are harsh. It’s dark for two months in winter, temperatures can drop down to 55 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and it’s frozen seven to nine months of the year.

Yet even as rising methane emissions warm the planet, Russia has no plans to stem production of natural gas. Gazprom’s website boasts that it intends to operate for more than 100 years in Yamal, which in the Indigenous Nenets’ language means “land’s end.”

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The bulk of Russia’s gas come from the Yamal Peninsula, where drilling rigs like this one in the Bovanenkovo gas field cut across the frozen landscape. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Parts of Russia’s Arctic already have warmed double or even triple the global average. If that trajectory continues for a century, such warming will obliterate gigantic tracts of Arctic permafrost, uncover yet more mammoth remains, heat up croplands and cities and topple oil and gas infrastructure planted in the softening soil.

The country has long faced criticism for setting weak climate targets and not doing more to curb the carbon footprint of its massive fossil fuel industry. Experts at the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors countries’ climate promises, rate Russia’s current 2030 target under the Paris agreement as “highly insufficient.”

For years, Putin rejected the scientific consensus that humans are fueling the warming of the planet. At the same time, the Kremlin’s position was that, if anything, Russia stood to benefit from climate change, opening up the Northern Sea Route to export oil and gas by tankers as the waters become free of ice.

But in televised comments in late June, Putin warned that “global warming is happening in our country even faster than in many other regions of the world.” He added that the thawing permafrost in Russia’s northern regions could lead to “very serious social and economic consequences” for the country. Days later, he signed a law that will require the nation’s biggest polluters to report their greenhouse gas emissions.

Yakutia — Russia’s coldest region — has been engulfed by massive wildfires this summer, and Putin told government officials that climate change is to blame, noting that the Arctic is warming nearly three times the global average.

The new attention to global warming hasn’t extended to Russia’s network of gas pipelines. Leaks rarely get media attention, and gas is widely considered a lesser evil compared to coal, which still powers many households in the Siberian heartland. Even in Russia’s environmental activist circles, methane is rarely discussed — though high leakage can make it more harmful than coal.

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Maxim Evdokimov has worked as a construction and mechanical foreman at gas fields across Russia, including those in the remote Yamal region, for more than a decade. He often investigates potential leaks and has a collection of photos showing natural gas flares — tall industrial chimneys with flames burning on top — from the fields where he’s worked. But he doesn’t see methane as a climate villain.

“Methane is natural gas. How can it be harmful to the environment?” he asked. “Methane appears in every life process, from cows to plankton.”

Methane does come from a wide range of sources, from landfills to rice paddies, from abandoned coal mines to hog waste lagoons, from wetlands to thawing permafrost — and in every instance it is also a powerful greenhouse gas.

“To say that we’re all going to build turbine towers and solar plants everywhere right now is premature from my point of view,” Evdokimov said. “We have a lot of gas, we continue to explore new reserves, and old ones will suffice for decades to come.”

Part of Yamal’s gas is liquefied at huge plants and shipped abroad in tankers, the numbers of which will increase over the next decade. Pipelines branch off like railroad tracks from a train station, cutting through the landscape of frozen tundra and boreal forests.

At the fields, the word “GAS” is plastered across hulking white cylinders in large Cyrillic letters. From there, the pipelines snake west, crossing the Ural mountain range, powering Russian cities and towns and providing critical exports to Europe. Others will head east, carrying gas to China and to a new large petrochemical plant on the Chinese border.

The resources in Yamal are enormous. Gazprom’s Bovanenkovo field alone possesses reserves of 4.9 trillion cubic meters, about twice as large as all of Europe’s. And gas from the field will be fed into the politically controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will soon expand exports connecting Russian gas production and European consumers.

The gas for Nord Stream 2 will travel west for 13 days, from Yamal to Narva Bay at the Russia-Estonia border and then underneath the Baltic Sea and Danish waters before landing on Germany’s coast. The new line could make Europe more dependent on imports from Russia and give Moscow greater leverage and flexibility to bypass certain European countries in the event of a political flap.

“I often hear that Russia is not interested in addressing global climate issues,” Putin said in an address at a St. Petersburg business conference on June 4 — the same day as the Gazprom leak in Tatarstan. “This is nonsense. And in some cases, it is a deliberate, blatant twisting of facts. We feel the risks and challenges.”

Edelgeriyev, Putin’s climate adviser, said it would help if United States would lift sanctions, which were imposed in retaliation for Russia’s violating Ukraine’s territorial borders, allegedly poisoning Russia’s opposition leader, interfering in U.S. elections and launching cyberattacks against the United States.

“Climate projects should be sanctions exempt,” he said. “The companies should be able to have access to finance, equipment and technologies. Otherwise how can they work?”

Putin called the Nord Stream 2 natural gas “the cleanest in the world” because it “is pumped straight from under the surface. There is no fracking at all.” The pipeline, he said, “complies fully with the most stringent environmental standards.”

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The gas travels through thousands of miles of pipelines with compressor stations spaced regularly along the way to keep the gas moving. In Slavyanskaya, a new station directs natural gas to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. (Peter Kovalev/TASS/Getty Images)

But Russia’s gas enterprise remains shrouded in secrecy. Areas around key gas facilities that dot large parts of the Yamal Peninsula are considered restricted zones and are off limits to non-Russian citizens without special permission from state security services.

Gazprom and energy companies Novatek and Lukoil declined The Post’s requests for interviews for this story.

An aging colossus

The sheer size of Russia’s gas infrastructure is one reason to suspect that the nation’s methane emissions dwarf its own most recent estimates.

Gazprom’s pipeline network in Russia is about 110,000 miles long. Pipelines undergo regular maintenance to catch signs of corrosion from gas and moisture. To identify a leak, operators shut down valves at either end of the pipe segment.

At that point, the best course would be to pump the gas out and capture it. Instead, often the methane is “flared,” or burned, to relieve pressure. That turns it into carbon dioxide, which is a much less potent greenhouse gas than methane. But frequently companies simply open the valves without flaring, sending methane gas directly into the atmosphere.

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Accidental leaks, such as the one on June 4, are another matter. A catastrophic failure in a well or pipeline can last a short period of time, but with profound consequences. Gazprom, formerly the Soviet Ministry of Gas Industry, must deal with many of those failures given the age and length of its pipelines.

The disruptive leaks, known as super-emitters, throw out of whack any attempt to systematically count greenhouse gas emissions. About 5 percent of leaks worldwide typically contribute over 50 percent of total emissions, according to a report by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

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