Satellite data has revealed that methane leaks from Turkmenistan's fossil fuel fields alone caused more global heating in 2022 than all of the carbon emissions of the entire UK.
The mind-boggling emissions from this oil and gas-rich country are an "infuriating" problem that could be easily fixed, according to experts. Methane traps 80 times more heat than CO2 over 20 years, making venting worse for the climate.
Turkmenistan is famous for being the home of the "Gates of Hell", a 230-foot-wide, 65-foot-deep pit of flames that has been burning methane nonstop for more than 50 years.
Turkmenistan's disastrous handling of its methane leaks was exposed by The Guardian, which accessed high-resolution satellite data from Kayrros.
Experts contacted by Guardian reports have described the situation as "alarming" but also as a "huge opportunity" to tackle climate change.
However, the country's maintenance of infrastructure is very poor, which doesn't suggest a silver lining is possible in the future. For instance, while the satellite data used by Kayrros to detect methane has been collected since 2019, there has been no progress in reducing emissions.
All eyes are now on the COP28 UN climate summit being hosted in the UAE in December, where everyone hopes talks can drive methane-cutting action in Turkmenistan. Just don't hold your breath.
"Out of control" methane emissions
Methane emissions have surged since 2007, and this acceleration could be the biggest threat to keeping global heating below 1.5C.
According to methane-sniffing satellite data, the western fossil fuel field in Turkmenistan leaked 2.6 million tons of methane in 2022. The eastern field emitted 1.8 million tons. The two fields together released emissions equivalent to 366 million tons of CO2, more than the UK's annual emissions, which are the 17th-biggest in the world.
"Methane is responsible for almost half of short-term [climate] warming and has absolutely not been managed up to now—it was completely out of control," said Antoine Rostand, the president of Kayrros, for The Guardian. "We know where the super emitters are and who is doing it. We just need the policymakers and investors to do their job, which is to crack down on methane emissions. There is no comparable action in terms of [reducing] short-term climate impacts."
Kayrros' satellite data also revealed that the majority of facilities leaking methane were owned by Turkmenoil, the national oil company. It identified 840 super-emitting events, which were leaks from single wells, tanks, or pipes, of a few tonnes an hour or more.
The switch from the flaring of methane to venting may be behind some of these vast outpourings.
While flaring (literally setting fire to methane at the well) is easy to detect and has been increasingly frowned upon in recent years by the industry, venting releases the invisible methane into the air unburned. This latter method used to be very hard to detect -- that's until modern satellites have come along that are capable of detecting atmospheric methane with high sensitivity.
Super-emission leaks are reportedly quite easy to fix, involving fixing degraded valves or pipes. These solutions are typically cheap for the value they provide, but nevertheless, no action is seen on behalf of Turkmenistan, a country infamous for its autocratic government and as one of the least visited places in the world.
An "infuriating" problem
Turkmenistan is the worst country in the world when it comes to methane "super-emitting" leaks. The country has close ties to the UAE, which will host the COP28 UN climate summit in December. Therefore, the summit is seen as an opportunity to drive methane-cutting action in Turkmenistan. Diplomatic efforts are being made to urge the country to cut its methane emissions.
Experts suggest that tackling leaks from fossil fuel sites is the fastest and cheapest way to slash methane emissions, which can also help to reduce global heating. Furthermore, action to fix leaks often pays for itself as the gas captured can be sold.
Turkmenistan's lack of action on this issue is worrisome but the country has the opportunity to become the "world's biggest methane reducer" by fixing the leaks from its aging Soviet-era equipment and practices.
Although fixing its aging oil and gas infrastructure requires huge sums of money -- some of which may be supported by other wealthy countries -- Turkmenistan would be wise to plug its leaks.
The country is in no way, shape, or form spared by the impacts of the climate crisis. Turkmenistan is already experiencing severe droughts, which are projected to increase "very significantly" over the 21st century. Yields of major crops are expected to fall as a result, among other things.