(Living Planet, broadcast date June 23, 2005)
John Hay: There are tens of thousands of gas pipelines crisscrossing Russia. Now, gas pipelines can be an environmentally dangerous thing; natural gas is made of methane, which is the second most powerful greenhouse gas. And Russia is not exactly the safest place to build a pipeline. Between the cold winters, the huge unmonitored spaces, and an energy industry that’s unstable at best, scientists became very worried that gas pipelines in Russia could be leaking, spewing unknown amounts of methane into the atmosphere and fueling the warming of the globe. So, as Erik Campano explains, the scientists got in their helicopters, and headed up into the cold Russian wetlands to take a personal look.
Erik Campano: A few hundred meters above northern Russia: the only manmade thing you can see is the gas pipeline, winding its lonely way through bogs, swamps, pine forests and tundra. International teams come up here, contracted by gas companies; otherwise, it’s brown bears and mosquitoes keeping the pipelines company, and you can’t rely on them to test methane levels. Yet those methane levels are particularly high up here in the Russian wilderness. Carl Brenninkmeijer led the team, trying to find out why.
Carl Brenninkmeijer: There were indications of leaks, much anecdotal information, at the times of the Soviet Union, in the transportation, breakages of pipelines, of course conditions are very hard there.
Erik Campano: Measuring methane leakage is not easy work. The team flew almost 2,500 kilometers across landscapes inhospitable at best, having to find places to land and then trudging across the wetlands with heavy measuring equipment. All the data then found its way back to the Max Planck Insitute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, Brenninkmeijer’s home institution.
Carl Brenninkmeijer: It’s not only the leaks…. When you want the pipeline to be repaired you have to leak gas. What do you do with the gas? Do you burn it off? Or is it released into the atmosphere? So the statistics, the discussions with Russian engineers, measurements at the site, statistical analysis, all that was involved, and that resulted in this number of point seven percent.
Erik Campano: Point seven percent. The figure doesn’t mean much to the average person, but to the atmospheric scientists, it’s the golden number. Point seven percent is just about the minimum amount of methane leakage you can have in a large natural gas transport system. Russia’s pipelines, it turns out, are safe. The high methane levels across the country’s north were being released not by the pipelines, by bacteria living in the wetlands.
This finding has huge implications for Europe’s energy policy. Governments across the continent were worried that by importing Russian natural gas, they’d be indirectly contributing to global warming.
Carl Brenninkmeijer: This special study actually shows that we can do a little bit by switching faster to natural gas. It’s a clean fuel, it’s efficient, and it’s transported safely to us…. the longer term problem is hefty, I would say. We have to generate much more energy by renewable means.
Erik Campano: Now, Brenninkmeijer is on another team also dedicated to monitoring the air we breathe, fly through, and, unfortunately, pollute. It’s called the CARIBIC project, and this time it‘s not people, but remote units, doing the measuring, and they’re riding not on helicopters, but on regular passenger planes. Indeed, the next time you get on a Lufthansa or Air France flight, underneath you in the cargo bay might be one of CARIBIC’s measuring stations, checking the amounts of all kinds of chemicals in the air around you. Of course, this is of immense use to scientists studying global warming, ozone depletion, and other environmental phenomena. But the airlines get something out of it, too: data about the air their planes are cruising through.
Carl Brenninkmeijer: For instance at one stage after the Pinatubo explosion, in the Philippines this volcanic explosion, there was a lot of sulfur dioxide gas directly injected into the stratosphere. And people in the street could see for one year beautiful red sunsets, indicative of the sulfuric acid. And the sulfuric acid actually attacked aircraft windows, on a global scale.
Erik Campano: Part of tackling air pollution is finding ways to measure it. Through projects like CARIBIC and the Russian pipeline inspections, the work of collecting real, detailed data is really taking off.
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