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New satellites can mitigate methane’s outsize impact on climate change

MethaneSat and Carbon Mapper could give governments and industry new ways to find methane emissions — and determine the value of stopping them.

Jeff St. John
Jeff St. John
9 min read
New satellites can mitigate methane’s outsize impact on climate change

Methane is a key driver of climate change, with 80 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. But methane only lingers in the atmosphere for about nine years, compared to a century for CO2.

That means reducing methane emissions from oil and gas wells and pipelines, livestock operations, landfills and other sources around the world will have an outsize impact on reducing global warming. This fact is driving a major push from climate activists and governments, and even from within the oil and gas industry, to find ways to cut them as deeply and as quickly as possible.

“This is a big lever on an incredibly important thing we can do in the near term to really reduce the damages of climate change,” Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview last week. “We can reduce the rate of warming by 30 percent by addressing these methane emissions.”

Discovering, measuring and pinpointing the sources of “fugitive” emissions of an odorless and colorless greenhouse gas that drifts with the wind is notoriously difficult, however. Gaining access to better data will be critical to developing policies that can levy fines or order preventative measures on emitters — or to accurately determine how much to pay for actions that cut emissions by a measurable amount.

That’s why long-time methane trackers like Hamburg are excited by the possibilities of two separate efforts to launch satellites that can scan the globe for methane emissions at a scope and level of detail not possible before, and to share their data with the public.

A satellite tag team to pinpoint methane emissions

The first is MethaneSat, a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund that is set to launch its satellite in 2022 and start delivering data in 2023. MethaneSat will be able to scan 200-kilometer-wide swaths of the earth with spectrometers that can detect methane at concentrations of 2 to 3 parts per billion, down to resolutions of about 100 meters by 400 meters.

This will be the best performance of any satellite-based methane tracking technology yet launched, Hamburg said. In comparison, the Tropomi sensors on the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel satellite can detect about 11 parts per billion at resolutions of 7 kilometers, and the sensors on satellites operated by Canadian-based company GHGSat can capture about 55 parts per billion, albeit at much tighter spatial dimensions, down to roughly 25 meters square.

Tropomi and GHGSat have earned credit for discovering “super-emitter” leaks, such as the 2019 plume in Turkmenistan estimated at 10 tons of methane.

Image credit: European Space Agency

MethaneSat will be able to capture leaks as low as 5 kilograms per hour per square kilometer — and “if there’s an oil and gas producing area that’s leaking less than that, you’re doing really, really well” in preventing typical emissions, he said.

Beyond this greater resolution, MethaneSat will also be able to “do something called an inversion, which is basically running the movie backward” to tell not just where methane plumes are now but also where they’ve come from, Hamburg said.

That’s a critical next step in turning orbital images into data that can trace the cause of atmospheric methane back to their source. “Part of the mission from day one was automating the inversion so that we can produce flux data, which no other system can do today.”

MethaneSat’s global scanning capability can’t see all of the sources of methane leaks, however. That’s where Carbon Mapper comes in. The newly launched joint effort of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the California Air Resources Board, private satellite company Planet, and universities and nonprofit partners including RMI and Bloomberg Philanthropies, plans to launch its first two satellites in 2023, with hopes of having a “constellation” of about 20 satellites in orbit by mid-decade.

Those satellites can focus on individual “point” methane sources down to 30 meters square, tightening the area-wide data from other sources like MethaneSat. “We can see the total emissions,” Hamburg said, “[but] we’re not able to see them as point sources.”

Carbon Mapper’s resolution will be able to provide that point source detail down to individual sites, with multiple satellites in orbit to “keep going back until we get really crisp measurements.”

MethaneSat is coordinating with Carbon Mapper on aircraft-based research and working toward platform integration. In combination, these two systems can “make emissions from the oil and gas industries, and emissions in general, transparent, at a scale and with a level of resolution that we’ve never had anything close to before,” Hamburg said.

Finding the leaks in the oil and gas industry

The oil and gas industries are the first key target, given their leading role in methane emissions. The Environmental Defense Fund's long-running analysis indicates that U.S. oil and gas operations emitted 16 million metric tons of methane in 2019, with a near-term climate impact greater than all U.S. coal-fired power plants.

But newly released research from the the group finds that roughly half of global methane emissions can be cut over the next decade at no net cost. Of that low-cost reduction potential, 80 percent could come from the global oil and gas industries.

Industry groups including the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative are promising to invest billions to drive down these emissions. “I think very often the industry doesn’t know where it’s leaking,” said Deborah Gordon, a senior principal in RMI’s Climate Intelligence Program involved in the Carbon Mapper project. As a former Chevron employee tasked with tracking emissions, she’s well-versed in the challenges of capturing useful data from the ground-based sensors that made up the majority of oil company monitoring until relatively recently.

Bill Hirst, principal consultant for Atmospheric Monitoring Sciences in Amsterdam and a 40-year veteran of methane emissions detection efforts at Shell, agrees that it requires "lots of high-precision measurements [that can be used in] lots of conditions” to accurately track specific quantities of methane back to their sources.

“If you stick your gas chromatograph right at the source, you measure 100 percent. If you move a little bit away, and you’re outside the plume, maybe an inch, you measure nothing,” he said.

In the absence of actionable data, “the whole industry has sprung up with magic numbers — what I call spreadsheet fictions,” he said, using rudimentary methods such as multiplying the number of point sources by assumed emissions numbers. Environmental Defense Fund research published in 2018 found that U.S. oil and gas companies were emitting 60 percent more than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had estimated.

Mobile and airborne sensor technology advances over the past decade have given bigger oil companies a much better grasp on their methane emissions, said Neal Dikeman, a partner at venture capital firm Energy Transition Ventures who formerly led Shell’s venture fund in North America.

But even the more advanced sensors provide data that must be subjected to complex mathematical calculations using physics models that can leave the ultimate findings open to dispute, Dikeman said.

“Shell had this awesome program. We’d take somebody else’s cameras, [fly] them around on a plane, sniff the air, and tell you where the concentrations were. Then they spent millions to build a mathematical dispersion model to tell you where it was likely the gas came from.”

Oil companies have also been leery of making data public, he said. “The last thing you want is detailed data for a [nongovernmental organization] to yell at you about it while you’re busy trying to cap the oil wells you’ve got.”

Meanwhile, smaller and older operations in major U.S. oil and gas-producing regions like Texas’ Permian Basin are not well-equipped on this front, he said — particularly those that have gone bankrupt.

“In Texas, it’s millions of wells, some of them huge and some of them small,” he said. “And some of them, you don’t know where they are anymore, because we’ve been drilling there for 100 years."

This uncertainty is reflected in the data as well. The European Space Agency in June reported significant increases in methane emissions in the Permian Basin in March and April of 2020 compared to the same months in 2019.

Image credit: European Space Agency

One reason could be that the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on oil and gas demand led operators to vent and flare more natural gas, said Claus Zehner, the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager. But without more frequent and higher-resolution measurements, hypotheses like these can’t be proven.

In that light, finding the right solutions to reducing methane leaks “is not just a money problem,” RMI’s Gordon said. “It’s a combination of really granular data, knowing what’s leaking where, and why,” and then prioritizing the investments to solve them.

Data to build the business case for halting methane emissions

That’s why backers of MethaneSat and Carbon Mapper are eager to share their data with the public, as well as to subject their findings to rigorous analysis by multiple parties, Hamburg said.

MethaneSat will “start producing data about six months after launch and expanding the portfolio of that data as rapidly as we can,” he said.  The California Air Resources Board will provide a platform to make Carbon Mapper data available to industry, government and private citizens, and it has already been testing data collected by aircraft-mounted sensors of the kind it plans to put in orbit in 2023.

Unlike aircraft, satellites don’t need permission to fly over oil fields or other suspected methane emissions sources, Hirst noted. That’s important for ensuring that data is being collected “when the operators don’t know they’re being watched” to avoid the potential for ramping down production activity to reduce emissions coming from known sources.

“Once you’ve got satellites out there producing this information, you can actually quote to people what they’re emitting,” he said. The question then becomes what to do with that information.

“You can fine it, but that’s not a great thing in my estimation, because your revenue goes down as you get more effective,” he said. “What I think we should do is create a whole new industry” built around publicly available and rigorously vetted data. This approach can turn disputes over emissions into “just a business cost of a refinery, or whatever business you’re in,” to reduce them as quickly as possible.

RMI’s Gordon agreed that “there needs to be some reason why the oil and gas industry wants to fix the problem. That could be a fine, such as the $1,800 per ton of methane proposed in a bill introduced in March by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), she said.

But motivation for oil and gas companies to reduce the methane intensity of their products could also come through efforts like the MiQ initiative created by RMI and sustainability consultancy Systemiq, which has created a natural-gas certification system to differentiate supplies based on how much methane they emit from wellhead to delivery.

“The second value-add is to help differentiate these companies from one another,” she said. “Hopefully, as we shrink our use of petroleum products, those operators that do remain in business do so most responsibly.”

These kinds of pressures are already being imposed upon oil and gas companies, she said. Last year, the French government blocked a potential $7 billion deal between French energy company Engie and NextDecade, a Texas-based producer of liquefied natural gas for export, based on concerns over the fugitive methane emissions from U.S. shale gas production.

“There was a lot of Permian leakage in the news, and it was too high a risk for Engie,” she said. “What we’re working on with this differentiated gas standard, and with Carbon Mapper, is to differentiate those that are more responsible.”

Oil and gas operations aren’t the only source of methane emissions that could benefit from the data being generated by these efforts, she noted. Dairies and landfills are “the really big manmade methane sources” outside fossil-fuel production, but without data on their emissions, legal mandates can’t address their global warming impact — or create data-based incentives for reducing them.

Governments setting “nationally determined contribution” commitments under the Paris Agreement must create inventories of greenhouse gas emissions. However, “you can’t reduce something that you don’t have in the inventory,” she said. “I think Carbon Mapper will be fantastic at cleaning up those inventories.”

Hirst said many landfills could prevent methane from escaping into the atmosphere by covering them with membranes that force the gas underground. Without commonly agreed-upon standards for measuring the change in emissions before and after those interventions, “you’ll have armies of lawyers arguing about your calibration methods.”

With the kind of data available from satellite networks like MethaneSat and Carbon Mapper, “they can generate income.”

(Article image courtesy of the European Space Agency)

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Jeff St. John

Jeff St. John covers technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He is former managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.