One of the most dangerous greenhouse gases is leaking into the atmosphere relentlessly from the European Union’s easternmost edge.

Invisible plumes of methane escape from Romania’s oil fields, gas pipes, rusting storage containers and even a well next to a playground. The job of finding the leaking gas, with more than 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide in the short term, falls to James Turitto from the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force. He’s found more than 70 leaks using a special infrared camera capable of detecting the odorless gas.

“It felt like every well in Romania is leaking,” said Turitto, who’s traveling around Europe with the €100,000 ($118,000) camera to track down fugitive releases. “Tanks were rusted out. It was impossible to document all the methane emissions.”

The ubiquity of leaks coming from one of the EU’s top producers of oil and gas highlights a challenge for European policymakers working to cut greenhouse gas emissions 55% from 1990 levels by the end of the decade. Methane is the biggest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide, but it has so far faced scant regulation in Europe. While the bloc proposed a sweeping package of policies to decarbonize its economy earlier this year, it has yet to pass comprehensive laws to tackle methane.

“It’s literally under the radar,” said Antoine Vagneur-Jones, an analyst at research group BloombergNEF. “If the EU wants to push ahead with any kind of strong policy around this, then it also needs to make an effort to clampdown on methane leakage in its own backyard.”

The EU is relatively free of the kinds of large-scale methane leaks that have been detected through satellite imagery in countries from Kazakhstan to Australia. Over the past two years, those bigger plumes — typically with emissions rates in excess of 5 tons per hour — have been spotted on only about a dozen occasions in Europe, compared with more than two thousand globally, according to estimates from geoanalytics firm Kayrros SAS. Most European leaks were related to coal production in Poland.

But these so-called “superemitters” account for only around 10% to 15% of the total methane pollution from the gas and oil industry, Kayrros says. The rest comes from smaller sources. Halting both small and large leaks is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to slow the increase in global temperatures. In some places that means stopping intentional venting of excess gas during oil, gas and coal production. In other places it means upgrading pipelines and compressor stations to reduce fugitive emissions.

Turitto says his experience in Romania shows how easy the problem is to solve, if companies are willing to do so. For example, after he sounded the alarm on a pipeline leak 75 kilometers west of Bucharest, engineers arrived swiftly to fix the problem. With natural gas prices in Europe soaring to record levels this summer, every bit of methane companies can keep in their pipelines means more profit.

Most of the sites where Turitto detected methane are owned by OMV Petrom SA, the Romanian unit of Vienna-based OMV AG. Footage shows a number of vents releasing methane straight into the air. Other videos depict rusting storage tanks rippled with holes through which gas is able to escape. A spokesman said the company has started to investigate the locations highlighted by the footage and would take appropriate action.

Turitto also detected methane at sites operated by companies including Transgaz SA Medias, Oscar Downstream Srl, Amromco Energy and state-owned Conpet SA Ploiesti. Conpet said their testing didn’t show any methane releases that exceeded legal limits and that Turitto had broken the law by trespassing.

Amromco said the methane didn’t come from its gas facility, based on the GPS coordinates provided by Turitto. Transgaz said it was not able to immediately answer questions about the leaks because of the complexity of the information. Oscar Downstream did not respond. Romania’s environment protection agency directed queries to the companies.

Leaks also showed up near residential neighborhoods. In the town of Campina, 60 miles north of the capital Bucharest, the camera caught fumes rising up from two wells surrounding a children’s playground in an apartment complex. While methane isn’t toxic to humans in limited quantities, other gases associated with oil and gas production, such as hydrogen sulfide, can have hazardous effects. Turitto says he could smell the fumes; a resident told him that the area had always smelled like that.

The camera Turitto used picks up gases across a range of wavelengths. Two technical experts who reviewed the footage said that the overwhelming share of gases detected was likely to be methane. The same technology is used by the oil and gas industry to spot leaks at their operations.

“Hydrocarbon emissions, likely including methane, are obvious in the videos,” said Tim Doty, president of Texas-based TCHD Consulting LLC, one of the experts who reviewed some of the footage. “Certainly, the pipelines, wellheads, and vents are likely emitting a significant quantity of methane that directly contribute to climate change.”

The race is on to curb methane as a growing number of extreme weather events drive home the dangers of climate change. Floods and wildfires have torn across Europe this summer, and that’s with global temperatures having warmed just 1.2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Key climate talks COP26 in Glasgow in less than three months’ time will determine if the world can keep the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

European policymakers are expected to soon propose laws that will force gas companies to monitor and report methane emissions as well as improve the detection and repair of leaks. An EU spokesperson said that the bloc’s new measures would cover both intentional and unintentional leaks within the energy sector, and the proposals would aim to target similar action internationally.

“We’re barreling toward major tipping points in the climate system, things that we don’t want to cross,” said Jonathan Banks, Clean Air Task Force’s international policy lead on methane. “If all we do is try and address CO2 emissions, we will blast right through those tipping points and the climate will be irreversibly altered.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.