A wave of satellites set to orbit Earth will be able to pinpoint producers of greenhouse gases, right down to an individual leak on an oil rig.
More than a dozen governments and companies already have or are planning to launch satellites that measure concentrations of methane, which is blamed for about one quarter of man-made global warming. They are trying to track even individual facilities to identify the biggest contributors to climate change.
“Space-based technologies are allowing us for the first time to quickly and cheaply measure greenhouse gases," said Mark Brownstein, a senior vice-president at Environmental Defense Fund, which plans to launch its MethaneSAT in 2021. “Oftentimes, both government and industry are not fully aware of the magnitude of the opportunity to cut emissions. With that data, they can take action."
Regulators are taking note. California is partnering with Planet Labs Inc. on a satellite to help it “pinpoint individual methane plumes" from oil and gas facilities, as well as other sources, such as landfills, dairies and waste-water plants, Stanley Young, a spokesman for the state’s Air Resources Board, said in an email.
California was the site of the largest natural gas leak in US history in 2015 when a broken well outside Los Angeles owned by Sempra Energy released more than 100,000 tons of methane before being plugged, federal and university researchers said in a study published in Science the following year. In August, the utility estimated costs associated with the leak at $1.01 billion (around ₹7,042 crore).
This may cause shareholder pressure on companies to disclose and reduce emissions. In September, Exxon Mobil Corp. joined the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which aims to reduce aggregated upstream industry methane emissions by over 20% by 2025, and Chevron Corp. said it plans to tie executive compensation with meeting emission targets.
Leaks constitute energy that could have been sold. Oil and gas firms can cut 40-50% of their methane at no net cost, which, in terms of climate impact, is the equivalent of shutting two-thirds of the coal-fired generation in Asia, according to Laura Cozzi, the International Energy Agency’s chief energy modeller.
Other emission sources are more difficult to track because they are more diffuse. Agricultural supply chains, including domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep, which emit gas as part of their digestive process, represent the biggest anthropogenic contributor to methane globally, followed by the oil and gas industry, landfills and coal mining, according to the Global Methane Initiative.
But shareholder pressure is building. Investors representing $6.5 trillion in January called on fast-food giants, including McDonald’s Corp., Domino’s Pizza Inc. and Yum! Brands Inc., to implement policies that help lower greenhouse gas emissions released from farm supply chains.
Reducing methane emitted by livestock means more nutrients are converted into meat, according to Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef executive director Ruaraidh Petre. One way to improve the efficiency of an animal’s life cycle is by improving the quality of pasture and introducing a type of seaweed into sheep’s diet that has been shown to cut their methane emissions by 80%, he said.
The satellite projects are a mix of public and private efforts that vary from the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite to Montreal-based GHGSat Inc., which plans a constellation of satellites. ESA, whose craft launched in 2017, released a global map of methane offering insights into where the gas originated. The new satellites can detect invisible bands of the light spectrum, allowing for the identification of gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.
“Seeing exactly who is emitting what, where, how much and when is a must in order to reduce emissions and stop climate change," said Yotam Ariel, founder of Bluefield Technologies Inc., which plans to have its first gas-measuring microsatellite in orbit by the end of next year.
Bluefield is one of several start-ups entering the sector, including GHGSat and San Francisco-based Orbital Sidekick Inc. that will launch satellites and sensors to monitor leaks at oil and gas facilities. Bluefield is funded in part by Village Global LP, a venture capital firm backed by tech titans, including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. GHGSat’s investors include the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, Schlumberger Ltd., Space Angels and the Business Development Bank of Canada.
The new crop of satellites have yet to demonstrate the accuracy required to monitor emissions from natural sources like wetlands, or the agricultural sector, but may be useful in helping identify and reduce large point source emissions, according to Lesley Ott, a research meteorologist at US space agency Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.