Scientists have for the first time used satellite data to detect a major offshore leak of the potent greenhouse gas methane, according to peer-reviewed research.

The findings add a crucial tool to an expanding space-based arsenal for pinpointing previously invisible methane plumes from the oil and gas industry.

Fossil fuel operations globally emitted about 120 million tonnes of the planet-warming gas in 2020, nearly one-third of all methane emissions from human activity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The new study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters identified a plume from an oil and gas production platform in the Gulf of Mexico that spewed some 40,000 tonnes over a 17-day period in December.

The platform, near Campeche in southern Mexico, is in one of the country’s biggest oil producing fields.

Satellite-based methods for spotting methane leaks over land have developed rapidly in the last few years, training an uncomfortable spotlight on regulators and industry. But equivalent techniques have been lacking for leaks from offshore oil and gas operations, which account for about 30 percent of global production.

Methane is responsible for roughly 30 percent of the global rise in temperatures to date. While far less abundant in the atmosphere than CO2, it is about 28 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas on a century-long timescale. Over a 20-year time frame, it is 80 times more potent.

Methane lingers in the atmosphere for only a decade, compared to hundreds or thousands of years for CO2.

This means a sharp reduction in emissions could shave several tenths of a degree Celsius off of projected global warming by mid-century, helping keep alive the Paris Agreement goal of capping Earth’s average temperature increase to 1.5C, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

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By Peter