Study shows urban gas leaks are a climate problem in Europe. But there is a clear technology solution

Scientists involved in the Oil and Gas Methane Studies discover methane leaks in Hamburg and Utrecht.

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A graphical represenation of methane measurements taken around Utrecht's waste water treatment plant.

Prevalent methane emissions are not isolated to distant oil and gas producing countries and on remote wells, they can be found right on our doorstep. A new study using vehicles outfitted with sophisticated sensors measured methane emissions at street level in the Dutch city of Utrecht and in Hamburg, Germany.

The study is part of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Oil and Gas Methane Studies, an activity under the Mineral Methane Initiative led by the U.N. Environment Programme with scientific support from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas responsible for at least 25% of global warming. It is also the main ingredient in natural gas. Numerous studies analyzing methane leaks from gas distribution systems in cities across the United States, Canada — and now Europe — show gas pipelines can be a significant source of emissions. Gathering measured data is essential for getting a clearer picture of emissions as official inventories often underestimate the problem.

These mobile methods for methane detection can detect more leaks than conventional gas detectors. In Hamburg, 50 to 80% of methane emissions stem from leaky gas pipelines.

“We discovered increased methane concentrations at 145 points in the Hamburg city area, 50 of which are due to gas utility leaks,” said EDF scientist and co-author Dr. Stefan Schwietzke. “In total, the Hamburg gas network released about 286 tonnes of methane emissions into the atmosphere causing the same short-term climate damage as 1,000 additional cars on the road each year.”

This is a situation that can be changed as Schwietzke explains: “The specially designed vehicle-mounted mobile monitors detected methane leaks much more effectively than conventional sniffers. Gas utilities that modernize their leak maintenance practices with these vehicles can both protect the climate and improve the safety of the gas network.” Gasnetz Hamburg, the local utility, has already recognized this opportunity and is cooperating with EDF and partners on a follow-up study to test ways to implement this new monitoring technology.

In Utrecht 81 leak indications were discovered, 70 to 90% of which are from fossil origins. What the studies found is that a few sites are responsible for a significant proportion of leaks. In Utrecht, for example, one site was responsible for one-third of all emissions. In Hamburg a quarter of of total emissions came from two sites. This means that actions to reduce a significant proportion of emissions can be taken quickly and cost-effectively.

Supplementing the study results with further measurements in other cities can help draw a more complete picture of Europe’s methane emissions from the vast network of gas pipelines under city streets. Corresponding studies are already underway in a dozen European cities — from London to Paris to Bucharest, which will provide valuable data to fill in gaps identified by the EU Methane Strategy and increase reduction opportunities in the Union.

Take a virtual tour of the surveys here.

Download the study here

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