‘Game changing’ satellite tracks methane emissions from oil and gas

The picture MethaneSAT will provide is needed because current reporting is “wildly underestimating” the amount of methane emissions, according to Jonathan Banks of the Clean Air Task Force

The Environmental Defense Fund says it will make its methane emissions data freely available so that oil and gas companies can use it to fix leaks. NOAA/CIRES photo by Jeff Peischl.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on March 11, 2024.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s recently-launched MethaneSAT aims to address crucial information gaps on methane leaks from oil and gas companies—with the data made freely available for public scrutiny.

“We don’t have a really granular picture on the true amount of methane that’s being emitted from individual sectors and sources and exactly where those emissions are coming from,” Katlyn MacKay, a Canadian scientist with the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), told CBC News. “MethaneSAT fills a critical data gap that current missions aren’t capable of.”

The satellite’s construction and its launch on March 4 were funded privately through a partnership between EDF, Google, the Government of New Zealand, and several other partners, CBC writes. The scale of global methane pollution is currently unclear, even though the greenhouse gas is considered to be about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span, the crucial period when humanity will be scrambling to get climate change under control.

Now, MethaneSAT’s “200-plus kilometre satellite view path is large enough not only to quantify known sources, but also to discover and quantify previously unknown sources,” writes EDF, explaining how the satellite “changes the game” when it comes to tracking methane emissions.

“It’s designed to measure regions at intervals under seven days, regularly monitoring roughly 50 major regions accounting for more than 80 per cent of global oil and gas production.”

And it can detect changes in gas concentrations as small as three parts per billion in the atmosphere, as well as larger “super emitters,” CBC says.

The picture MethaneSAT will provide is needed because current reporting is “wildly underestimating” the amount of methane emissions, said Jonathan Banks, the Clean Air Task Force’s global director of methane pollution prevention.

While several satellites already monitor methane, “either they scan wider areas at lower resolutions, or they pinpoint specific targets without broader context,” explains The New York Times. “MethaneSAT’s capabilities sit somewhere in the middle.”

Other commercial ventures also detect methane, but their data is proprietary, the Times adds. EDF says it will make its data freely available so that oil and gas companies can use it to fix leaks.

But the free access also gives anyone else who’s interested methane emissions—like elected officials, investors, gas buyers, and the general public—a better understanding of what’s going on and a new tool to enforce accountability measures.

“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’s development.

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

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