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Powerful Methane Cloud Seen by Satellite Came From Georgia Pipe

U.S. natural gas pipeline operator says a necessary upgrade caused the greenhouse gas emissions.

Williams Cos., one of the biggest transporters of natural gas in the U.S., said an intentional release of a powerful greenhouse gas detected by satellite was caused by work on one of its pipelines.

The cloud of methane, which is the primary component of natural gas and traps 84 times more heat than carbon dioxide over its first couple of decades in the atmosphere, was spotted over Georgia on Dec. 14 by a European Space Agency satellite. Geoanalytics firm Kayrros SAS analyzed the data and estimated an emissions rate of 14 tons of methane an hour was needed to generate the plume. If the release lasted an hour at that clip, it would have the same short-term climate impact as the annual emissions from 255 cars in the U.S.

When contacted by Bloomberg, Williams said it was responsible for the release, which occurred when it upgraded its Transcontinental pipeline system southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based operator couldn’t immediately say how much methane was released during the work and said it used “best practices to safely purge air out of the pipeline and reduce methane emissions before returning the pipeline into service.”

Non-emergency flaring and venting of methane should be significantly mitigated or eliminated to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5° Celsius and to maintain a pathway toward a net zero energy system by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. The autonomous intergovernmental organization formed after the 1973 oil crisis has increased calls on fossil fuel operators to halt intentional releases of the greenhouse gas.

If the oil and gas industry is going to claim that it needs to leak or vent methane, then it’s very difficult to see how it can also make the case that natural gas is going to be part of the solution towards achieving our shared climate objectives, Christophe McGlade, head of the energy supply unit at the IEA, said in October when asked about operators who defend intentional releases.

Williams operates over 30,000 miles of pipelines spanning more than 20 states and moves about 30% of the natural gas used in the U.S. for heating, power generation and industrial use. The company said in a statement it used a construction technique called recompression to prevent emissions while taking the line it was working on out of service. 

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division wasn’t aware of the plume and had no plans to investigate it. “These types of releases are not required to be reported to EPD,” an official said in an email. He added that he’s not aware of any agency in Georgia that regulates methane releases. Similarly, federal pipeline safety regulations currently don’t require pipeline operators to report intentional releases when the releases are intentional or related to pipeline maintenance and repairs.

Halting intentional releases and accidental leaks of methane could do more to slow climate change than almost any other single measure. About 75% of methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry could be cut by 2030, according to the IEA.

The methane cloud in Georgia is one of dozens spotted globally by satellites in 2021 and reported on by Bloomberg. Previous emissions of the potent greenhouse gas include a release from a pipeline owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy in Oklahoma, a mysterious cloud of the gas over Texas energy fields and a large plume spotted during repair of a Russian pipeline.

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