Mumbai: Countries across the globe are underestimating methane emissions, studies show. The gap in methane emissions estimates in the oil and gas sector is being recognised globally; the industry’s emissions are underestimated by 25-40%. India, which is currently the world's fourth largest methane emitter, uses the Tier 1 methodology for estimating methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, which is the least reliable approach, suggesting significant inaccuracies in the emissions estimates from energy and industrial sectors.

Chasing Methane: Emission Spikes is IndiaSpend’s latest effort to bridge this data gap. The dashboard, developed in collaboration with Respirer Living Sciences, aims to track and identify high emission events around oil and gas facilities in India using satellite data. Methane concentration from the Copernicus Sentinel 5-p satellite is collected and analysed to detect higher-than-normal methane levels in the vicinity of oil and gas reservoirs. Such high emission events, often undetected and responsible for a disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions, pose a significant threat to our environment and climate goals.

Over 20 years, methane would trap about 80 times as much heat as the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2). Research estimates that 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human activities. Reducing methane emissions represents an important opportunity to slow down the rate of warming in the short term and help bridge the emissions gap between current trajectories and those consistent with the 2°C or 1.5°C temperature goals.

Leveraging high-resolution data from satellites, our project employs advanced algorithms to identify these elusive emission spikes. This not only sheds light on a critical environmental challenge but also equips stakeholders with invaluable insights to drive proactive measures towards a more sustainable and methane-conscious future. Ground-level leak detection and fence-line monitoring of methane concentrations would show a more complete picture of emissions.

Methane emissions in the oil & gas sector

In India, the agriculture sector is responsible for more than 60% of methane emissions. But the cost burden of methane reduction cannot be placed on India's largely small and marginal farmers. The threat to farmer's livelihoods was among the reasons cited by India for not signing up to the global methane emissions reduction pledge to target 30% reduction in global methane emissions from 2020 levels by 2030, at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow.

Additionally, no Indian oil and gas companies have partnered with the Oil & Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 (OGMP 2.0), an initiative under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to monitor methane emissions.

According to the Greenhouse Gas Platform (GHG-Platform India)--a collaborative initiative by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a New-Delhi-based public policy think-tank, and the Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), a Bengaluru-based sustainability think-tank, among other organisations--about 13% of methane emissions are from the energy sector, which includes coal, and oil and gas. Nearly two-thirds of this is from fugitive emissions, while the rest is from combustion of fuel (see chart below).

Methane that is released because of a combination of design choices in equipment, operational practices and equipment failures or leaks is categorised as fugitive emission. It is the intentional or unintentional release of gas during the extraction, processing and delivery of fossil fuels to the point of final use. This includes equipment leaks, evaporation and flashing losses, venting, flaring, incineration and accidental releases (e.g. pipeline dig-ins, well blow-outs and spills).

The OGMP 2.0, the oil and gas reporting and mitigation programme of the UNEP, describes the framework for measuring, reporting and tracking methane emissions. Data reported by over 100 companies across 60 countries is compiled and studied by International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) to understand the nature of methane emissions.

The 2022 report used data collected from different sources or segments in the process of extraction, processing and delivery of oil and gas across oil and gas companies in the world. It collates and analyses methane emitted from upstream, midstream and downstream sources.

‘Upstream’ refers to the industry segment that explores and produces oil and fossil gas, including assets such as reserves, drilling rigs and production facilities. ‘Midstream’ refers to assets such as pipelines, storage tanks and transportation vessels that transport and store crude oil and fossil gas before they are refined and processed. Refineries and retail outlets are ‘downstream’ assets that transform crude oil and fossil gas into finished products.

The data reported at the source level show that a small number of large emissions have a disproportionate contribution to total emissions. That is, emissions are not uniform across different sources. Recent scientific literature has referred to this subset of high emission sites as the ‘fat tail’ of the emissions distribution. If these small numbers of high emitting sources can be identified and mitigated, it can quickly and dramatically reduce methane emissions. IndiaSpend reported in August 2022 that, for methane emissions, the oil and gas sector is low-hanging fruit in efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

How India calculates methane emissions

Globally, methane emissions are usually not measured, but are estimated based on assumed or measured leak rates and production rates. India uses the Tier 1 methodology, defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This estimation uses the net amount of gas and oil extracted along with the global emission factor for methane to calculate the amount of methane released.

Tier 1 uses an IPCC default value of emission factor, and hence does not account for regional factors such as the source of fuel. Tier 2 uses country-specific emission factors that are based on either measurements by country-level monitoring systems or IPCC Tier 2 emission factors. Tier 3, which is the most demanding in terms of complexity and data requirements, includes models and inventory management systems tailored to address national circumstances, as is deemed most reliable.

IndiaSpend reached out to the MoEFCC regarding the plans to update the methodology for estimating methane emissions. We will update this story when we receive a response.

Underestimation and data gaps in India

The quantity and composition of fugitive emissions are generally subject to significant uncertainty. An initiative by India’s major oil exploration and production company, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), has tried to estimate such leaks at four locations. The results from this study showed that there are significant variations amongst the contributions of various stages of fugitive emissions (fugitives, venting, flaring) in different projects, which necessitates field-level measurements.

“Implementing measures for more accurate emissions data on ground will be challenging since there are no standards prescribed for measuring methane emissions,” says Dhanasekaran Ramachandran, who retired as the Deputy Director at the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in September 2022. He explains that the instruments used on site are flammable detectors or explosive detectors, and these cannot be used for monitoring and tracking methane emissions.

“Leaks will happen, it is a part of the process and is inevitable. We must have gadgets or regulators must imbibe these methods at the time of installation itself. The Lower Explosive Limit (LEL) detectors are to prevent explosions and protect the plant, not the vicinity or environment.”

India’s ambient air quality standards are restricted to 12 parameters, and do not include methane. “The law is the weakest point,” says Dhanasekharan, “Measuring 12 parameters is environmental compliance legally and monitoring methane is not included. When there is no law, it becomes an authorisation to pollute.”

Moreover, the latest reports submitted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) do not include data after 2016. The Biennial Update Report which details emissions across sectors was submitted in 2015, 2018 and the latest one in 2021. Even though the latest report was submitted three years ago, the data are seven years old. “Emissions don’t vary hugely between 1-3 years, but having a seven-year gap is certainly a problem,” says Avantika Goswami, a climate policy researcher at the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based nonprofit.. “In that period there has been an increase in population, transport, vehicles and energy demand.”

Using data from satellites for identifying high-emission sources

Accurately estimating overall emissions requires understanding the frequency and magnitude of emissions across a wide range of sites, rather than monitoring emissions from a few sites, according to UNEP. Effective approaches need to recognise the random and unpredictable nature of the distribution of “super emitters” events from fugitive emissions and should characterise the entire emission distribution, the UNEP says.

In this context, satellites are capable of emission detection and monitoring at different scales, from local to global, and over long periods of time. A growing array of satellites are gathering methane data globally. Some provide a global overview, while others map emissions from particular facilities, referred to as point sources. The point-source mappers can identify methane plumes from specific individual sources, but can only detect relatively high concentrations, and have a narrower field of vision.

Use of atmospheric observations, either at the surface, airborne or from satellites, have proven effective in correcting emission factors and in revising sectoral methane emissions in multiple geographies. This has provided opportunities for identifying specific sources and mitigation opportunities.

A recent study found that methane emissions from the oil and gas supply chain in the United States are underestimated by roughly 60%, when compared to empirically-based, top-down estimates. Similarly, satellite-based estimates of total methane emissions in Mexico are 45% higher than emissions presented in the inventory, with emissions from the oil and gas sector being 100% higher.

Methane emission spikes in Indian oil and gas reservoirs

The Chasing Methane: Emission Spikes dashboard shows over 700 days of high emission events across 21 oil and gas refineries in the country in the last two years, until October 11, 2023. The methane tracking initiative by Kayrros, a France-based private company, identified 155 “super-emitting” methane leak events in India in 2022, including waste sites and industrial sources, as reported by The Guardian in March 2023. These emission spikes around oil and gas reservoirs could be low-hanging fruit for reducing overall methane emissions in the country.

Over one-third of these high spike events have been observed in three locations--the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) refinery in Vizag, the Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (MRLP) refinery in Mangaloreand Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd (CPCL) refinery in Manali. In October 2022, the National Green Tribunal found that methane emissions were not being monitored in the HPCL refinery in Visakhapatnam. For several years, the refinery has been responsible for emitting smoke, causing unpleasant odours, and polluting the water. IndiaSpend has reached out to these refineries regarding the strategies employed for monitoring methane emissions within their facilities, as well as their efforts aimed at mitigating methane emissions. We will update this story when we receive a response.

“At some point we have to develop a better, more systematic method of domestically monitoring our emissions. We are seeing a global satellite monitoring effort to identify emission spikes in the world; our leaks will come under the international radar,” warns Goswami.

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