The novel coronavirus is slowly changing the mix of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The most profound changes in carbon dioxide were measured late last month by Columbia University in New York City, where there were 10% reductions in CO2 and a whopping 50% drop in carbon monoxide.

“The air is the cleanest I’ve ever seen it,” said Roisin Commane, an atmospheric chemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

As yet, however, the reductions haven’t registered with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division, which gives worldwide estimates based on “well-mixed air” measured at remote sites, such as its observatory at the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.

“We’ve seen no significant drop,” said Theo Stein, a spokesman for the division.

A more serious aspect of the pandemic, however, may be that the most potent greenhouse gas—methane—could increase, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Unlike the pending decline in CO2, largely related to a temporary slowdown in transportation and some industrial sectors, methane researchers are troubled by what the agency calls a continuing “lack of reliable data” from global oil and gas producers, which are the largest man-made sources of the gas.

A recent report from the Paris-based IEA says that’s because a sharp decline in revenues from oil and gas operations may push some companies to pay less attention to fixing leaks in gas pipes or increase the venting and flaring of unwanted gas.

The report describes the possibility of more emissions at a time when governments are overwhelmingly focused on dealing with the coronavirus. That would be tragic, the IEA says, because “reducing emissions from oil and gas operations is amongst the lowest of low-hanging fruit for mitigating climate change.”

Methane, an invisible, odorless gas that makes up more than 95% of natural gas fuel, can be as much as 80 times more potent as a global warmer per given unit than CO2, which is more plentiful in the atmosphere. While there are less emissions than CO2, methane lasts around 12 years, while CO2 lingers for centuries.

Another problem is that methane remains difficult to measure. Even major leaks continue to surprise the IEA, despite the agency’s effort last year to develop what it calls “Methane Tracker,” a more intense effort to track and reconcile varying global estimates of methane emissions.

The new effort provides what it calls a “comprehensive picture” of the emissions from more than 70 countries, plus encouraging a broader view of technologies that can bring them down.

Satellites sniffing for leaks

One of the more hopeful technologies is satellites that can spot methane leaks in small areas of the globe. What’s troubling is that the IEA continues to be surprised by substantial leaks, including three plumes emitting more than 25 metric tons of methane per hour from oil and gas operations in Algeria in January. That’s the equivalent of the emissions from a large coal-fired power plant.

The satellites are helpful because previously, such leaks were detected by hand-held instruments. But the report notes that existing satellites can’t see leakage in snowy, marshy or offshore areas, where there can be substantial oil and gas production.

Some countries, such as the Netherlands and Norway, have begun to patrol with aircraft with special sensors to track oil and gas activities in the North Sea area.

Regulators may lose their tight focus on the emissions because some governments are currently overwhelmed by the details of the coronavirus pandemic. And there are other countries, the report notes, where poor attention to the methane emissions problem is caused by “lax regulatory oversight, weak rule of law, poorly functioning oil and gas industries—or all three.”

In theory, oil and gas companies should regulate emissions tightly because they amount to the economic equivalent of a bank leaking money. The IEA report notes that one-third of methane leakage from oil and gas operations in its latest estimate could be avoided “at no net cost.”

In fact, it may take newer satellites, which are coming, and better reporting to make it harder for “laggards to go unnoticed,” the report says. It adds that its new Methane Tracker indicates that “the best-performing companies and countries are showing the way.”

“This remains a huge opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—not just for 2020, but for good.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at