Huge Methane Leak From Kazakhstan Well

Huge Methane Leak From Kazakhstan Well – Why This Is Important To Kazakhstan And To The West.

Originally published on on February 21, 2024

A huge release of methane from a single well that lasted six months was followed by Kazakhstan pledging with 150 other countries to reduce emissions by 30% by the year 2030.

In 2023 a natural gas well blew out while drilling in Kazakhstan. Why is this important to Kazakhstan, and to the rest of the oil and gas world? To start with, the blowout lasted 6 months. Second, the well was burping methane gas the whole time, and methane heats the atmosphere up to 80 times more than CO2 does. Third, Kazakhstan’s history and independence from Russia in 1991 make it a country the West should want to help resolve problems in its energy industry.

Kazakhstan, with a population of 20 million, lies to the north of the Caspian Sea and a small area on the eastern side, with Russia on the western side of the Sea. Natural gas and oil fields lie in a strip along the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. The country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

As the second largest in Eurasia and Russia, Kazakhstan had proven oil reserves of 30 billion barrels in 2018. This was the 12th-largest in the world. Kazakhstan ranked 18th out of 127 countries in terms of daily oil production in 2022.

Why is the blowout important to Kazakhstan?

An unnamed well blew out on 9 June 2023 while drilling a natural gas well, and the well-caught fire. Control of the well wasn’t restored until Christmas day, over 6 months later. During this time, almost 130,000 metric tons of methane escaped from the well, equivalent to the emissions of over 700,000 gasoline cars in one year. Natural gas is essentially methane.

Figure 1. Separate bursts of methane from gas well that blew out. Source: Polytechnic University of Valencia SRON.
Figure 1. Separate bursts of methane from gas wells that blew out. Source: Polytechnic University of Valencia SRON.

But the issue is controversial. The owner of the well, Buzachi Neft, denies the release of methane, by arguing it was water vapor instead. However, the duplication of the measurements reinforces the published results.

The French firm, Kayrros, analyzed the satellite data and discovered 115 separate bursts of methane between June and December. These were confirmed by two separate institutes. Further, there were five different ways to identify methane data distinct from other signals, and these results were consistent. Last, the detector can distinguish a methane plume from widespread background methane levels that may have existed.

It’s unclear how the well burped these 115 separate bursts without the methane catching fire – because methane burns to CO2 which would give a different signal. Perhaps there were two different ports at the wellhead for exiting natural gas.

The emission of methane over this period was a monstrous event. One observer suggested that this release of methane by humans was second only to the blasts that knocked out the twin Nord Stream pipelines from Russia to Germany in September 2022 and released 230,000 metric tons of methane.

Final confirmation came from the Department of Ecology in the well region which measured levels of methane 50 times higher than legal limits after the initial blowout, but also higher on 10 other occasions before September 21.

The importance of satellite data.

By combining data from satellites and ground-based detectors, Kayrros has recorded, at any one time, about 100 big methane leaks across the world as well as hundreds of smaller ones. Jean Bastin, Product Manager at Kayrros, explains, “Over one year, those 100 leaks are releasing 20 megatonnes of methane, with around half of those attributable to the oil and gas sector and other heavy industries. This means that this sector emits an amount of methane that is equivalent to the yearly carbon dioxide emissions of both Germany and France combined.”

MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of EDF, is planned to be launched by SpaceX in early 2025. The new satellite will orbit 300 miles above the Earth, 15 times per day.

Just this month, the MethaneSAT team finished assembling our groundbreaking methane satellite in Colorado and shipped it to California’s Vandenberg Space Force, where it will be launched in a matter of weeks. It will concentrate on emissions from the oil and gas industry, especially lower emissions from many sources that can add up to a serious overall level.

A correlative project called MethaneAIR, scheduled for summer 2024, will survey oil and gas basins within the US by detectors on a Lear Jet, although at a much smaller scale than MethaneSAT. These two projects will provide free data to industry and regulators, which will be an effective way to encourage operators to fix their leaks.

A new partnership with Google will help turn this data into action by mapping the sources and extent of methane measurements. Figure 2 shows data collected by the MethaneAIR project but using the same spectrometer to measure methane as will be in MethaneSAT.

Figure 2. MethaneSAT data will soon be accessible through Google Earth Engine. Yellow circles are point sources of methane against background colors that represent area emissions. Source: EDF.
Figure 2. MethaneSAT data will soon be accessible through Google Earth Engine. Yellow circles are point sources of methane against background colors that represent area emissions. Source: EDF.

EDF’s emphasis on the measurement of methane emissions has been invaluable to the oil and gas industry which had been flying blind. Data from MethaneSAT should enable companies to identify leaks, and any leaks plugged in wellheads storage tanks or pipelines will translate to savings of otherwise wasted gas, and benefit the bottom line. Such data will also help regulators and assist other company stakeholders in assessing how well a company is addressing climate change.

Note: both these projects will also measure methane emissions from other sources of methane such as agriculture and landfills which are no less critical to reaching net zero by 2050.

Why is the blowout important to the rest of the world?

Kazakhstan’s output of crude oil and condensate was 1.8 million barrels per day in 2021. Tengizchevroil (TCO) is a joint venture between Chevron (50%), ExxonMobil (25%), KazMunayGas (20%) and Lukoil (5%). They developed the Tengiz and Korolyvov oil and gas fields in the Atyrau area in the west of the country, where the well blowout also occurred.

First up, the world via the UN has committed to try to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Such an extravagant release of methane gas from a single well that lasted six months is a demoralizing event. But it is comforting that Kazakhstan joined with 150 other countries to reduce emissions by 30% by the year 2030 – they signed the Global Methane Pledge at COP28 at the end of 2023. The government has also promised that the country will be 50% renewables in its energy supply by 2050, according to one observer.

Second, it reflects badly on the operators of the well, although most oil and gas-producing companies have a history of mistakes (the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 is an example). But, Kazakhstan’s full potential for oil and gas production has not been reached, and they need to embrace new oilfield technologies and investments from the West to bolster their energy security and public programs like education (44% of the state’s revenues come from oil and gas exports).

The country’s politics may be critical too, given the war by Russia on Ukraine. 80% of Kazakhstan’s oil is exported, mostly through Russia.

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