A coal mine in a remote part of Russia is spewing out huge amounts of a very potent greenhouse gas in what has been described as the “biggest” leak of methane ever detected from a single facility.
The Raspadskya Mine in Kemerovo region in southern Russia is releasing nearly 90 tonnes of methane every hour, according to new data from GHGSat, a company that uses satellites to monitor methane leaks from space.
The company said it detected 13 distinct methane plumes during a satellite pass on January 14, 2022 and observed more plumes on subsequent dates.
Stephane Germain, the founder and president of GHGSat, told CNN on Wednesday that the leak on January 14 was not a one-off incident – the company has detected consistent leaks from the facility throughout the past five months.
“We find large leaks all over the world, but this one stood out,” he said, adding it was the biggest leak ever recorded and traced back to its source.
GHGSat said that if the emission continued at the same rate for a year, the mine would emit more than 764,000 tonnes of methane – equivalent to the amount of natural gas needed to power 2.4 million homes for a year.
Raspadskaya, the company that operates the mine, did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
After carbon dioxide, methane is the second largest contributor to climate change caused by humans.
Methane is the main component of the natural gas that is used to heat homes and cook, and can leak from coal mines, oil and gas drilling as well as from the pipelines that transport fossil fuels. It also comes from landfills and agriculture, with burping cows one of its biggest sources.
For a long time, methane was overlooked as a problem, because its total emissions are significantly lower than those of CO2.
However, the gas has roughly 80 times more warming power in the near term than CO2 and, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher now than any time in at least 800,000 years.
“To look at it another way, methane is the world’s quick win,” Germain said. “If we can find the sources of methane around the world, it can have a very large short term impact on climate change. And that’s why it’s so important for us to find the sources and then work with the operators and with the regulators to find ways to reduce those emissions.”
Methane is difficult to detect because it is invisible and odorless. GHGSat is using six satellites with high-resolution spectrometers that make methane visible and can pinpoint the exact source of leaks.
“Every gas in the atmosphere absorbs light at a specific wavelength, every gas has a ‘spectral fingerprint’ and spectrometer looks for those fingerprints,” Germain explained.
He said the leak in Russia fits into a wider trend the company is seeing around the world.
“Coal mining emissions have increased significantly in the last year. We’ve seen that in China. We’ve seen that in Russia. We’ve seen that in the United States. We’ve seen that in Australia, and so systematically, to us, this indicates that there’s been an increase in coal production,” he said.
An agreement to cut coal use was a major point of contention at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last year, with countries finally agreeing to “phase down” consumption as part of their efforts to keep global temperature rises as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible.
Germain said the increased coal production correlates with the rise in gas prices.
“Countries that have the coal resources are probably very interested in having alternative sources of energy that are lower cost than what gas is currently costing. That’s what we believe we’re seeing and frankly, it’s very unfortunate,” he said.
GHGSat said the large release of methane from the Raspadskya Mine could be intentional and related to safety at the mine. It explained that methane is an unavoidable byproduct of mining, with pockets of the gas released during the extraction process.
A large buildup of methane in underground tunnels could be extremely dangerous because methane is explosive. Miners at the Raspadskaya site have previously suffered deadly consequences; in 2010, a gas explosion in the mine killed more than 60 people.
With the planet rapidly approaching 1.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, scientists have warned atmospheric methane needs to be slashed quickly. The 1.5 degrees has been identified as a critical threshold and keeping warming as close to this point as possible is the key target of the landmark Paris Climate agreement.