A new study has found that the world’s biggest polluters are not coal-burning power plants or cars, but satellites. The study was conducted by a team from Harvard University and published in Nature Climate Change.
Satellites have been deployed to find methane leaks from natural gas pipelines. The satellites are able to detect the methane, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Satellites are gaining traction as a tool for combating climate change, revealing hidden sources of greenhouse gas emissions and enabling governments to track compliance with international agreements.
Over the last three years, satellite pictures have been used to highlight newly unknown methane leaks—or to inflate estimates of known emissions—in Russia, Turkmenistan, Texas’ Permian Basin, and elsewhere, sparking diplomatic squabbles in certain instances.
Private businesses, environmental watchdogs, and others have made disclosures, some using data from multifunctional, space-agency-owned satellites. Hundreds of specialized satellites are also being launched by governments, commercial businesses, and environmental organizations to search the globe for greenhouse gases.
Satellites have long been used to hold enemies responsible for national security, tracking military buildups or weapons movements, in addition to their usage in communications and weather monitoring. Their involvement in emissions monitoring provides a new opportunity for countries to utilize technology to point fingers at one another.
Several nations have voiced concern that satellite imaging might be used by a competitor to “identify and shame” them for their emissions. According to Stephane Germain, CEO of the Canadian satellite firm GHGSat Inc., which monitors emissions, China has made it plain that it wants to regulate monitoring inside its own borders and views such satellites as a national security problem.
Mr. Germain said, “The overriding fear is that they are being watched from space.”
However, global corporations already employ satellites to monitor everything from Chinese steel production to shopper activity in suburban American malls, and big oil firms embrace satellite surveillance as a means of demonstrating compliance with clean-air regulations. Through the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, an industry partnership, major companies such as Saudi Aramco and Exxon Mobil Corp. have invested in GHGSat.
“‘It will leave leakers with very few hiding spots.’”
— Tim Gould, chief energy economist of the International Energy Agency, on satellite-based emissions monitoring
Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that escapes unpredictably from wellheads, pipelines, and storage tanks, making it difficult to detect—especially in remote areas and autocratic nations that don’t allow field inspections or aircraft overflights—is a major target for climate-monitoring satellites.
Satellite surveillance, according to Tim Gould, chief energy economist at the International Energy Agency in Paris, “will present leakers with very few locations to hide.”
The United States and others, including the United Nations, commercial businesses, and the European Space Agency, will be among those pushing for a broader use of satellites for monitoring progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the international climate conference in Glasgow next month.
MethaneSAT, a $88 million satellite project being built by the Environmental Defense Fund in the United States with assistance from the New Zealand government and others.
Ball Aerospace/MethaneSAT photo
Countries have struggled to achieve carbon reduction objectives put out in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, which lacked enforcement measures for countries that did not meet their commitments.
Satellites, according to US climate envoy John Kerry, may be helpful in monitoring pollution from China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases whose government limits information. In July, Mr. Kerry signed a joint declaration stating that the US will collaborate with Russia to monitor emissions through satellite. According to the International Energy Agency, Russia is the world’s largest producer of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, followed by the United States.
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Satellite technology has not been without controversy since its inception. Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected criticism over the gas and said his nation will launch its own satellites after the analytics firm Kayrros reported a large rise in methane emissions from Russia based on open-source data from European Space Agency satellites.
Beijing has said that it is attempting to verify climatic data from other countries. According to state media, it launched TanSat, also known as CarbonSat, in 2016 to monitor carbon emissions and intends to launch five additional emissions-monitoring satellites through 2025.
The French national space agency, the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, or CNES, is collaborating with the United Kingdom on Microcarb, a satellite-based climate monitoring project.
“The greatest tool is satellites,” CNES scientific director Juliette Lambin stated. “They span the whole globe in a matter of days.”
Several public-private collaborations in the United States are developing emissions-monitoring satellites. Carbon Mapper, a venture that involves collaborations with the state of California and clean-energy and climate-change think tank RMI, is one of them, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Lab is supplying the main sensor for it.
In July, a plane was constructed at a hangar in Broomfield, Colorado, for a MethaneSAT test flight. The satellite research attempts to determine how much methane is present in the atmosphere and where gas leaks are happening.
A xenon emission lamp was used to calibrate a spectrometer designed to detect methane emissions, according to scientist Jonathan Franklin.
Before a trip to test the methane-monitoring equipment, technicians worked on a Gulfstream aircraft owned by the US National Science Foundation.
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This summer, scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund, Harvard University, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory convened in a Broomfield, Colorado aircraft hangar to work on MethaneSAT, a $88 million satellite project. The device is being built by the EDF in the United States, with assistance from the New Zealand government and others. The satellite, which is expected to launch in approximately a year, will be dedicated to monitoring methane emissions across the world.
“Russia will not allow you to fly an aircraft over their oil field.” “It’s not going to happen in the Middle East,” Tom Ingersoll, a venture capitalist fund manager and co-leader of MethaneSAT, stated. “Hiding from a satellite is tough.”
The research will use a spectrometer to identify methane by measuring the reflection of sunlight off the Earth’s surface. MethaneSAT’s sensor is designed to target methane’s refractions since every molecule reflects light differently.
The scientists placed a spectrometer on a Gulfstream aircraft owned by the National Science Foundation of the United States, which funded the research. The spectrometer was directed via two peach-tinted portholes in the fuselage’s belly. It was able to detect methane from a vehicle from 45,000 feet over Texas.
The gadget also detected a huge, unexpected methane plume nearby, which was subsequently identified as an unlit flare at an oil well pad by the system.
On the left, an infrared camera captures the equivalent of a naked-eye overhead picture of a Texas oil-and-gas plant, while on the right, methane emissions can be seen pouring from the same location minutes later. ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE FUND VIDEO
“Seeing this plume, that’s when I realized it was functioning,” Jonathan Franklin, a Harvard researcher in charge of MethaneSAT’s spectrometer calibration, said.
Once in orbit, the device will transmit data to cloud-computing systems on Earth, where algorithms will determine how much methane is present in the atmosphere and where gas leaks are situated.
Independent satellite-monitoring programs are welcomed by oil industry executives and their trade organization, the American Petroleum Institute. They are also financing their own efforts, claiming that the American sector is a cleaner producer, which satellite data would support. According to IEA statistics, the United States generated 4.7 percent fewer methane emissions in 2020 than Russia, while producing 34 percent more oil and gas.
GHGSat, whose customers include Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Chevron Corp, is owned by the industry to the tune of roughly a third.
Jenna Samra and Jonathan Franklin of MethaneSAT carried a spectrometer for the project’s satellite.
“Imagine a very sensitive, precise satellite that could check those [methane] emissions and hold all exporting nations to the same standard,” said Shell USA President Gretchen Watkins. “That’s a victory.”
In the last year, GHGSat deployed two satellites with resolution good enough to zoom in on any of the world’s millions of pipelines and wellheads. It intends to expand to ten more with $45 million raised in a second round of financing that ended in July.
In 2019, the business made headlines when it found that human-caused emissions may be making Turkmenistan one of the world’s top methane emitters. The first GHGSat satellite, “Claire,” launched in 2016, was looking for mud volcanoes when it instead found a malfunctioning natural-gas compressor plant.
Turkmenistan was compelled to halt the emissions as a result of diplomatic pressure. Other leaks, however, continue to occur, including those from pipes, tanks, and flares that are releasing raw methane into the air rather than burning it, according to GHGSat, which estimates that such leaks will equal the emissions of almost 10 million vehicles this year.
Russia has gotten a lot of attention as well. Using data from current European satellites, Kayrros estimated in April that methane plumes seen from pipelines and other gas infrastructure in Russia increased by 40% last year. Kayrros used satellite data two months later to claim that a pipeline in Russia’s Tatarstan was the probable cause of the third-worst emissions burst it has ever discovered in 2019.
Where Money and the Environment Collide
Timothy Puko can be reached at [email protected]
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