Having conducted more than a dozen field studies in the U.S. that led to over 36 papers published in scientific publications as part of a five-year, $20 million effort to detect and reduce methane emissions, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is taking its methane-fighting mission to the next level—outer space.
The New York-headquartered group, which has worked alongside several oil and gas companies to lower emissions, plans to launch a rocket that will carry a satellite called MethaneSAT into space to collect methane emissions concentrations from major oil and gas sites across the world.
The mission was announced late April 11 during TED2018 in Vancouver as part of The Audacious Project: Collaborative Philanthropy for Bold Ideas. The project encourages donors to pool resources to fund ambitious projects. TED has already raised $250 million to fund seven projects. EDF’s MethaneSAT was among those featured, with an introduction by actor Don Cheadle, during the event.
“Pound for pound [methane’s] immediate impact is far greater than carbon dioxide, 84 times greater over a 20 year period,” EDF President Fred Krupp said while speaking about the project during a Facebook Live stream from TED2018.
Krupp showed photographs of how a methane leak—one of the worst in U.S. history— from a natural gas storage facility in California was invisible to the naked eye but clearly evident with use of an infrared camera. He explained how natural gas is displacing the nation’s dependence on coal, which emits more CO2. However, methane—a greenhouse gas—is the main component of natural gas. “As it is produced, processed and transported to homes and business across America it escapes from wells, pipes and other equipment,” he said.
The quest comes as the Trump administration works to roll back legislation enacted during Obama’s reign regarding regulations to cut methane emissions. Oil and gas companies have made tremendous strides in lowering emissions and continue to do so jointly and independently.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane emissions from natural gas production dropped 16.3% from 1990 to 2015 as production increased 55%. The decline was made as the oil and gas sector invested about $90 billion in new zero- or low-emission technologies. Among these is use of optical gas imaging cameras used to detect fugitive emissions for repair.
“The natural gas and oil industry is constantly leveraging advanced technologies—on the ground and in the air—and have for years in an effort to accelerate methane emission reductions from our operations and to date, our innovations have led to a rapid decline in methane emissions during a period where U.S. natural gas production has grown exponentially,” American Petroleum Institute spokesman Reid Porter told Hart Energy on April 12. “Advanced technologies are better enabling the public to distinguish those sources that make up the majority of U.S. methane emissions annually, including from livestock farming, wetlands, and landfills.”
But the satellite’s reach would be massive, filling in gaps in data globally.
The satellite is being designed to pinpoint the site and magnitude of methane emissions using a wide, 200-km view path at seven-day intervals, or less, the EDF said. Hopes are that it will be able to measure emissions—not simply take photos—from about 80% of the world’s major global oil and gas facilities, Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy for EDF, told Hart Energy.
"This is about having the ability to track changes over time,” Brownstein said.
In the past, EDF and its partners used drones, planes, helicopters and Google Street View cars in addition to monitoring equipment to collect data. Brownstein noted that some countries and companies have committed to reducing emissions.
“We’ve seen that when we present companies with data many of them will cut the pollution,” Krupp said referring to the EDF’s work with oil and gas companies. “Citizens will be empowered to take action. Governments tighten regulations. Because of all our data will be free and public there will be transparency. We’ll all be able to see how progress is being made and where.”
The goals are lofty and aggressive: launch the satellite within three years and cut methane pollution from oil and gas sites by 45% by 2025.
“That will have the same near-term impact as shutting down 1,300 coal-fired power plants. That’s one-third of all the coal-fired power plants in the world,” he said. “Nothing else can have this sort of near-term impact at such a low cost. The fact that a single satellite can help put the brakes on global warming is truly remarkable. This is our chance to create change in our lifetimes, and we can do it now.”
The effort is similar to one conducted by the European Space Agency, which launched a satellite that tracks greenhouse emissions, including methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide among others. The Sentinel-5P satellite was launched from Plesetsk, Russia in Siberia aboard a Eurockot Rockot booster carrying Tropomi, or TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument, in October 2017. Developed by a Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute-led Dutch consortium, Tropomi is on a seven-year mission.
However, MethaneSAT will have better resolution and precision—a pixel size of 1 km by 200 m compared to Tropomi’s pixel size of 7 km by 7 km, according to Krupp. “So 700 of our pixels will fit into one of theirs,” Krupp said. “We’ll be able to detect leaks of 250 kilograms,” vs. 7,500 kilograms per hour. “We’ll be able to see more leaks.”
But there is much work to be done before MethaneSAT becomes reality.
Since none of the technologies or algorithms needed is commercially available, the EDF plans to “leverage recent scientific and technological innovations in sensor design, spectroscopy, data retrieval algorithms and flux inversions to meet our demanding performance requirements,” according to a white paper on MethaneSAT.
For help with the required science and algorithms needed to accurately interpret data collected EDF has teamed up with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. It has also brought aboard Tom Ingersoll, the satellite entrepreneur who served as CEO of Skybox Imaging. The company was sold to Google in 2014 which in turn renamed it Terra Bella and sold it to San Francisco-based Planet.
“It’s the start of the process. We’re not uncorking the champagne until we have it built and launched,” Brownstein said. Partnerships need to be firmed up, equipment designed and built; working on the team handling analysis and selecting a vendor to build the satellite are among the tasks ahead. Plans are to pursue fixed-price contracts to keep costs down while working with corporate partners to find lower fees and in-kind services. But EDF is confident its ability to pay for the project, considering falling satellite technology costs.
Although the satellite would be capable of measuring such emissions from other sites such as feedlots, landfills and other manmade sources for examples to effect change, focus will initially be on oil and gas sites in areas that include North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Such data would then be analyzed and made available to the public.
“The only way to have a truly good picture of the extent of oil and gas methane emissions is to go out into the field and get better data,” Brownstein said. “When you talk about a global industry, you need to have global strategies to do that.”
When asked during TED2018 how the project could impact the world’s overall methane emissions problem, Krupp said it would put a dent in the problem though there are a lot more sources causing climate change.
In the white paper, EDF said it would work with “existing sector leaders, like companies participating in the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative that have already made commitments, to bring others into the fold, using MethaneSAT data to verify emissions baselines and progress toward reduction goals.”
Currently, no industry or governmental groups are among the partners. But Brownstein said some of the companies EDF has worked with on its North America studies are aware of the project and “they’re interested.”
“At the end of the day, it’s in everyone’s interest to have better data. That just leads to better solutions sooner,” he said.
Velda Addison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.