CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Turkmenistan, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world for methane emissions

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Turkmenistan, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world for methane emissions
East of Hazar, Turkmenistan, a port city on the Caspian Sea, 12 plumes of methane stream westward. The plumes were detected by NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation mission. / NASA/JPL-Caltech
By Aida Kadyrzhanova in Almaty March 29, 2023

Turkmenistan, methane emissions champion of the world. It’s quite some anti-award for a little-known, remote country of 6mn in Central Asia that many would struggle to pinpoint on a map.

For those struggling to believe it, further data from ‘satellite detectives’ has confirmed that when it comes to fossil fuel facility “methane super-emitter sites”, Turkmenistan is top of the table, ahead of big emitters such as the US and Russia. Its biggest satellite-tracked event was a leak of 427 tonnes an hour last August near a major pipeline by Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea coast. That single leak was equivalent to the rate of emissions from 67mn cars, or the hourly national emissions of France.

Satellite data analysed by the French climate tech company Kayrros identified 1,005 methane super-emitter events worldwide in 2022, with 559 from oil and gas fields, 105 from coal mines and 340 from waste sites such as landfills. The events can last from a few hours to several months.

Turkmenistan had the highest number of super-emitting events – 184.

“They vent like crazy,” Christian Lelong at Kayrros recently told the Guardian.

In terms of Turkmenistan, the bad news, unfortunately, does not end with super-emitter events.

Scientists have also revealed 55 “methane bombs” around the world, namely fossil fuel extraction sites where gas leaks from future production would emit methane levels equivalent to 30 years of all US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Turkmenistan, which has the sixth-highest gas reserves in the world, is home to one of these major bombs (Yolotan South), giving it a place in a top 10 that also includes Texas, Louisiana, Canada, Russia (with three major methane bombs) and Qatar.

Now for some good news. No, Turkmenistan’s totalitarian rulers did not voluntarily all of a sudden get on the phone to the UN climate change supremos to volunteer immediate action against their methane leaks. However, persuading the country’s reclusive autocrats to fix the emissions should not be an impossible ask, especially given that for 80% of oil and gas sites, and 98% of coal mines, measures to plug methane leaks and end deliberate venting would pay for themselves. That’s because, according to the UN, the extra gas captured could be sold, and plugging projects could be implemented at low net cost.

Outside experts are yet to get an on-the-ground look at secretive Turkmenistan’s outsized methane emissions. The speculation says the leaks are caused by ageing Soviet-era equipment or stem from attempts to avoid scrutiny that would be caused by the easily visible flames of flaring, where vented gas is ignited to create less damaging CO2.

Getting Turkmenistan’s Berdimuhamedov administration to sign up to the global methane pledge that requires signatories to cut human-caused emissions by 30% by 2030 would be the logical next move. Some 150 nations now back the pledge, though there remain some big non-signatories alongside Turkmenistan, including Russia, China, Iran and India.

Kayrros is signed up to provide methane leak data to the UN Environment Programme’s new methane alert and response project. The programme will use the near-real-time satellite data to pinpoint super-emitting polluters. They can then be pressed to address the leaks.

* Note: The full list of methane bombs and information on the methodology for defining them is here. Methane bomb analysis is based on 2020 information on gas-rich fields from industry data provider Rystad Energy and builds on the research published in the journal Energy Policy on carbon bombs by Kühne and colleagues.