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New satellite will track elusive methane pollution from oil and gas industry globally | Radio-Canada News


A privately funded satellite is poised to take methane tracking into a new era, once launched into space on Monday.

A collaborative mission between Environmental Defense Fund, Googlethe New Zealand government and several other partners, MethaneSAT will track methane emissions around the world to try to identify and quantify the sources spewing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

For 20 years after its release into the atmosphere, methane is 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in its ability to increase global temperatures. But currently, the extent of methane pollution is unclear.

“We don’t have a really clear idea of ​​how much methane is actually emitted by individual sectors and sources or where exactly those emissions are coming from,” said Katlyn MacKay, a Canadian scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“MethaneSAT fills a critical data gap that current missions are not capable of.”

Workers dressed head-to-toe in protective gear make adjustments to the solar panels of a methane-hunting satellite.
Workers make adjustments to the solar panels of the MethaneSAT satellite. (BAE Systems)

A “game-changing” technology

MethaneSAT’s mission focuses on methane from oil and gas production and consumption, which is the largest source of polluting gas, after agriculture.

The project team estimates that the satellite will be able to quantify total regional emissions, on a global scale, and capture and attribute data on individual oil and gas field emissions for 80% of the sites of global production. This builds on current methane tracking technology that has yet to offer a complete picture of the scale and precise points of origin of the heat-trapping gas.

Experts around the world are monitoring this mission closely, including Jonathan Banks, global director of methane pollution prevention at the Clean Air Task Force. He says MthaneSAT fills an important need because current reporting “vastly underestimates the amount of emissions.”

A rendering of a satellite that will be used to track methane emissions is shown in a MethaneSAT paper.
A rendering of a satellite that will be used to track methane emissions is shown in a MethaneSAT paper. (MethaneSAT)

“What satellites like MethaneSAT are going to do is give us a better ability to start capturing these gaps,” Banks said. “This will be a game changer for all of us working on this.”

Promises of reduction, but how many are there?

Many policymakers are also paying attention, as methane regulations offer concrete solutions to slow climate change.

“This is one of the least expensive opportunities,” said Tomás de Oliveira Bredariol, an energy policy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “Methane emissions can be reduced by 75 percent in the fossil fuel sector, which could reduce global warming by around 0.1°C by 2050.”

He says it’s bigger than it seems and would be the equivalent of moving all of today’s cars, trucks, trains and ships to net-zero CO2 emissions.

Canada, a leader

Reducing methane emissions is increasingly at the forefront of international climate policy discussions.

Since 2021, 155 countries have signed a global commitment to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. The Government of Canada has announced some of the strictest regulations, with the ambition to reduce leaks and carbon emissions. methane by oil and gas production by 2030. up to 75 percent, compared to 2012 levels, by 2030.

Canada unveils plan to reduce methane from oil and gas

The Government of Canada unveiled its plan to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector at the COP28 climate change summit. Methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming.

But even though promises have been made, there is a glaring problem, experts say: It’s unclear how much methane is currently being released into the atmosphere. This is where MthaneSAT could be historic.

“It will be very important that all these promises are supported by rigorous monitoring, reporting and verification,” said de Oliveira Bredariol. “Otherwise it will be very difficult to say whether we have achieved our goals or not.”

Private Sector Data Integration

MacKay says his team hopes the MthaneSAT mission will provide governments and industry with new tools for transparency, monitoring and accountability.

Traditional agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as governments, are grappling with how to track and use data from privately funded missions.

“NOAA is all about continuity,” said Jeff Privette, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate science division. “Using satellites, instruments and products from algorithms that we have not provided requirements for or designed… Can we do this and still be authoritative?”

“Before, we didn’t even think about it. But we have changed and we have a whole new paradigm,” he said. “We have a huge and urgent international need: the climate crisis and trying to understand greenhouse gases.”

In February, the National Physical Laboratory even hosted a workshop in the United Kingdom to discuss how to establish internationally recognized standards for satellite methane data.

Screenshot from Google Earth Engine showing a purple and yellow patch from aerial view.  This represents methane hotspots.
An example of what MthaneSAT data might look like in Google’s Earth engine, showing both a heat map as well as point sources of specific emissions. (Google SARL)

In Canada, the government is studying whether and how to exploit the data provided by MthaneSAT.

“(Environment and Climate Change Canada) scientists and technical experts are evaluating the potential use of this new satellite information,” the federal department wrote in a statement to CBC News. “As these new satellites continue to come online, ECCC will identify potential applications of the data based on assessments of data quality and plume detection capabilities. There are currently no plans to leverage this technology for regulatory enforcement purposes.

Fighting methane gives hope

Banks, who has worked on methane policy for 20 years, says he is relieved to see the debate and technology around methane emerging as a key part of the climate change conversation.

“If we reduce methane today, we see an impact on temperature over our lifetime,” he said.

“There’s an atmospheric aspect that’s really important, but there’s also a psychological impact that’s almost as important,” he said. “Methane allows us to bend the climate curve and gives people hope that, yes, we can solve this problem.”

MthaneSAT will begin feeding Google Earth Engine free public data once calibrated and tested in orbit. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates this will happen later this year.


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