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  • Jacob Bourne

Methane-Stalking Satellite Set to Launch Next Year Watching for Leaks

Methane, or CH4, accounts for only about 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but it has 25 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide over 100 years. In other words, it’s a powerful contributor to climate change, and it’s currently spewing out of the built environment due to leaks all over the world that are difficult to detect. Now a line of methane-detecting satellites is perching in the heavens keeping an eye on the problem.

Credit: Pixabay/Free-Photos

Natural gas used globally to power electric grids, fuel buses, heat water, and cook food consists primarily of methane. This colorless, odorless gas can easily slip out of, for example, tiny cracks or loose connections in pipes spilling out into the atmosphere unabated. The International Energy Agency estimated that oil and gas operations alone emitted 70Mt of methane in 2020.

According to a report from YaleEnvironment360, the biggest single-year rise in atmospheric methane levels occurred in 2020. This was despite a 7% drop in fossil fuel emissions last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Methane is also increasingly being released in melting Arctic permafrost adding to the elevated atmospheric levels. Still, the gas leaking from pipes and industrial sources is a colossal and damaging human oversight. A Global Methane Assessment from the United Nations found that anthropogenic sources of methane surpass natural ones.

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“Over the past decade, global methane emissions have risen at a rate faster than at any time in the last 30 years,” stated Executive Director of that UN Environment Program Inger Andersen. “While methane has both human and natural sources, recent increases are attributed to activity in three anthropogenic sectors, namely fossils fuels, waste and agriculture.”

While many areas need targeting to lower methane emissions, such as from cows reared as livestock, stopping unnecessary leaks is a prominent area in need of action. With advanced technology in the form of satellites now able to detect leaks, there’s hope that some of these excessive emissions can be curtailed.

A European tech start-up Kayrros has leveraged Copernicus Sentinel-5P data to monitor emissions globally, finding that about 100 high-volume methane leaks globally spew the gas at any given time. About half of these emissions are from fossil fuels and other industries.

“Over one year, those 100 leaks are releasing 20 megatonnes of methane, with around half of those attributable to the oil and gas sector and other heavy industries. This means that this sector emits an amount of methane that is equivalent to the yearly carbon dioxide emissions of both Germany and France combined,” Jean Bastin, Product Manager at Kayrros, said.

Two new methane-tracking satellites are set to bolster the effort to quell emissions. CarbonMapper, a nonprofit organization partnering with the state of California, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Planet, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, High Tide Foundation and RMI, announced a plan to launch a hyperspectral satellite constellation able to pinpoint sources of both methane and CO2 emissions in 2023.

“What makes Carbon Mapper unique is that it greatly expands both methane and CO2 emissions transparency for decision-makers and civil society,” said RMI Senior Fellow Deborah Gordon. “RMI can use Carbon Mapper to help certify low-methane natural gas and make emissions visible to accelerate action on a global scale.”

Another satellite developed by MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund, will hitch a ride aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to launch on October 1, 2022. The satellite is designed to provide higher sensitivity and better spatial resolution than global mapping instruments such as TROPOMI and a wider field of view than GHGSat.

“Reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is the fastest, most cost-effective way we have to slow the rate of warming right now, even as we continue to decarbonize the energy system,” said Mark Brownstein, Environmental Defense Fund Senior Vice President for Energy. “MethaneSAT is designed to create transparency and accountability to make sure companies and governments don’t miss that opportunity.”


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