See the New Satellite Tracking Methane Pollution from Space

Source: 3-D model via MethaneSAT and Fair Worlds

Six years ago, scientists at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund were wrapping up a major research project to measure methane leaks from oil and gas sites across Texas. Everywhere they looked — using planes, drones, ground measurements and even handheld devices — they found that gas was leaking at a far faster clip than the companies had disclosed.

What if that was happening around the world?

The scientists knew there was only one way to understand the bigger picture: Build a satellite to track methane at a global scale, something the group had never done before. As far as they could tell, no nonprofit had — only governments or private ventures.

“Everybody thought it was crazy,” said Steven Hamburg, the E.D.F.’s chief scientist, who led the project. “I thought it was crazy, to be honest.”

Over the following months, E.D.F. assembled a team of about 70 scientists and engineers from academia, commercial aerospace and defense industries. And it raised about $88 million from philanthropic donors, a shoestring budget given the scope of the project.

The satellite was scheduled to blast off into space Monday on a Space X rocket.

Methane, a colorless and odorless gas, is the main ingredient in natural gas, which is burned in power plants and factories around the world, as well as in homes (think: gas stoves). Gas is far cleaner to burn than coal, but it has a big problem: It’s notoriously leaky. It seeps from oil and gas drill sites. It escapes from pipelines that carry the gas where it needs to go. And some operators simply release it into the air instead of investing in the infrastructure to capture all of it.

And that’s speeding up climate change.

When methane escapes into the atmosphere, it acts as a heavy blanket in the sky, trapping the sun’s heat and warming the world. And in its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane captures more than 80 times as much heat as does carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. (Luckily, methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide.)

Scientists estimate that human-caused methane emissions are responsible for up to 30 percent of the global warming being experienced today.

Figuring out where methane emissions are happening, how big they are and who’s responsible has been a challenge. A lot of drill sites are unmanned. Some companies don’t invest enough in leak-detection technology. Or they don’t welcome inspectors taking measurements.

Enter MethaneSAT.

The washing-machine-sized satellite carries precision instruments, including a spectrometer that uses light reflected from Earth’s surface to identify and calculate the amount of methane in that slice of the atmosphere.

Several satellites already monitor methane, but either they scan wider areas at lower resolutions, or they pinpoint specific targets without broader context. MethaneSAT’s capabilities sit somewhere in the middle. (Some commercial ventures also detect methane, but their data is proprietary.)

MethaneSAT can detect changes in gas concentrations as small as three parts per billion in the atmosphere, according to E.D.F. scientists, allowing it to pick up on smaller emissions sources than other satellites. But it also has wide sweep — with a field of view of about 125 miles by 125 miles — allowing it to detect larger emitters, sometimes called “superemitters,” where other satellites might not be looking.

“It allows us to basically put on a pair of bifocals so we can see things both in the small scale, and the wider scale,” Dr. Hamburg said. The new satellite is also designed to track releases over time, to see whether they’re increasing or decreasing, and by how much.

Scientists back on Earth will analyze that data using cloud-computing and A.I. technology developed by Google, a mission partner, and make the data publicly available through Google’s Earth Engine platform.

All told, MethaneSAT aims to “see” about 80 to 90 percent of global oil and gas production as it does its daily 15 rotations around the Earth, E.D.F. scientists said. That should cover a significant chunk of human-caused methane emissions. (Other big sources of methane release are landfills and cow burps.)

E.D.F. will make MethaneSAT’s data freely available early next year, allowing oil and gas companies or environmental regulators to find and fix leaks faster, E.D.F. scientists said. They also hope to enable a wider group of elected officials, investors, gas buyers and the public to more readily understand who is responsible for leaks in order to hold them accountable.

“It’s a big step in a useful direction,” said Drew Shindell, an earth-science professor at Duke University who wasn’t involved with MethaneSAT. He said he expected the project to “be the gold standard for the use of remote-sensing data to trigger agency and industry action on leaks.”

The big question, he said, is whether oil and gas producers will be compelled to act. “There’s no guarantee that this information leads to a change in behavior,” he said.

The satellite launch coincides with efforts around the world to better regulate methane. New European Union rules, for example, impose methane-emissions limits on oil and gas imports, exerting pressure on major producers abroad. Regulations adopted by the Biden administration last year will for the first time require oil and gas producers in the United States to detect and fix methane leaks. At last year’s global climate talks, a coalition of 50 oil and gas companies pledged to reduce their methane emissions between 80 to 90 percent by the end of the decade.

The good news is that leaks of methane from oil and gas infrastructure should be relatively inexpensive to fix. And in theory, capturing that methane instead of letting it escape could pay for itself by allowing companies to sell more gas. Some companies have already started using other satellite data to better track their methane releases.

“We welcome the development, because we share the same aim as E.D.F.,” said Bjorn Otto Sverdrup, chair of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a group of twelve of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies that has pledged to reduce methane emissions. “I’d like to wish them the best of luck.”

More challenging is tackling emissions from landfills or from agriculture, specifically livestock, though some scientists are trying to do that by tweaking cows’ diets. Methane also seeps from natural sources, like flooded wetlands, but the majority of methane emissions today come from human activity.

A concerted effort to rein in methane from fossil fuels, agriculture and landfills could reduce methane emissions by up to 57 percent by 2030, helping to slow the rate of warming by as much as 30 percent, scientists have estimated. One of MethaneSAT’s main goals is to help bring about that change.

“Our only measure of success is: Do the emissions go down? That’s our North Star,” Dr, Hamburg said.

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