June 8 (Reuters) - Airborne surveys of methane plumes spewing from landfills, power plants and oil fields in California have lead to palpable reductions in leaks of the potent greenhouse gas, the state's air regulator and a non-profit group said on Wednesday.
Between 2017 and 2021, 44 California facilities voluntarily repaired methane leaks after they were notified about them as part of a pilot research program that used specially-equipped aircraft to detect and measure methane being released into the atmosphere.
The results of the study are a sign that one of the first in a growing number of efforts to deploy space-age technology to locate big sources of methane, an odorless colorless gas, is succeeding.
The fixes prevented the equivalent of 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere, the two groups said in a statement, which is equal to taking about 250,000 cars off the road for a year. The reductions were verified with follow-up observations.
The program is a partnership between the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and Carbon Mapper, a non-profit group that is an outgrowth of research that began in 2016 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere, and scientists say identifying methane sources is crucial to making the drastic emissions cuts needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
"The simple truth about this super pollutant is that you can't stop methane leaks if you don't know where they're coming from. This research pilot provides a powerful example for how data generated from remote observations can find leaks and inform actions to quickly stop them," Richard Corey, CARB's executive officer, said.
Carbon Mapper will launch its first methane-spotting satellite next year.
The announcement did not identify all the facilities that mitigated their methane emissions, but said Sempra Energy gas utility SoCalGas had responded to leaks identified in a pipeline by the airborne surveys. (Reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Richard Pullin)