Led by the US-based Environmental Defense Fund, MethaneSAT is a new project that aims to map and measure methane emissions from oil and gas sites across the world. Andrew Dykes reports
As governments, corporations and consumers around the world look for ways to cut carbon dioxide emissions, methane tends not to generate quite as many headlines. Yet although it forms a small part of overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – just 10% overall in the US, compared with 81% CO2, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the impact of methane is far higher because of its ability to absorb heat. As a result, over the first two decades of its release into the atmosphere, CH4 is estimated to be around 84 times more potent than CO2.
Methane is released from various sources, including manufacturing and agricultural facilities, but by far the greatest amount of industrial emissions emanates from oil and gas sites. Through various means including storage leaks, “fugitive” emissions from production sites, or pipeline ruptures, the industry releases about 75 million tonnes (41 bcm) per year, according to the US-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Even putting environmental effects aside, this is an eye-popping amount of wasted economic potential – around US$4.3 billion worth, based on average 2017 Henry Hub prices – especially as natural gas is positioned across the globe as a replacement for coal power generation.
Nevertheless, while more tangible efforts to reduce gas wastage have gained some traction – for example, policies which would ban flaring – difficulties remain in detecting, quantifying and preventing releases. As a result, EDF has moved to fund and develop a new leap forward in how these emissions are spotted.
MethaneSAT is a pioneering new satellite designed to map and measure methane emissions from oil and gas sites across the globe. The satellite’s monitoring path will include roughly 50 major oil and gas regions which combined account for more than 80% of global production. Making weekly orbits, it will also have the ability to assess emissions from other surface-level, human-made sources.
By generating high-resolution data at a scale beyond that of any operating or planned satellites today, EDF hopes the system will form a vital new tool for operators, the scientific community and the wider public to track the extent of methane emissions – and hopefully to respond accordingly.
For more than eight years now the EDF has helped co-ordinate the work of hundreds of scientists and the production of more than 35 papers on fossil-fuel derived methane emissions. In one example, a 2016 paper published by teams from the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) used isotopic analysis to determine that emissions from oil and gas were 20-60% greater than estimated in previous studies. This in particular highlights the scale of the problem in terms of determining accurate measurements.
Speaking with InnovOil from Washington DC, EDF chief scientist Steve Hamburg explained: “As we’ve built a better understanding of these issues, it became clear that we needed to be able to do this in a more routine way so we could really get a better picture on a regular basis of how these emissions were changing, and do so in a way that meant the data was available to everybody. That allows us to have a clearer understanding of how the industry’s ability to mitigate is being executed.”
Remote sensing via satellite was clearly the optimum solution to provide this routine global overview – the trouble was that the technology did not yet exist in the form that EDF needed it. Projects like the European Space Agency-led TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) were a step in the right direction, but did not provide the level of detail that EDF felt was necessary. “The basic issue is: do we have sufficient precision to create a clear picture? TROPOMI, which went up at the end of last year, has been a big improvement on what we’ve had until now. But we felt we needed more, and part of this was based on all this empirical data we collected.”
This data did, however, help steer the development of how the sensing system would work. “We have a much better understanding of what we’re trying to measure,” explained Hamburg. “We have a clearer picture of what emissions look like on the ground, their complexity and their patterning, and we used that data to evaluate what kind of capacity we would need to use remote sensing tools.”
Working in close collaboration with the TROPOMI team and with researchers and manufacturers who design the sensors themselves, the past three years have seen EDF begin to formulate a satellite design which can provide data in the necessary detail. This will be combined with other breakthroughs in spectroscopy, data processing and flux inversion to develop the final system, and additional input from institutions such as Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Other industry and governmental partners could also be brought in. As TROPOMI shows, using satellites to track methane emissions in this way is not unique. Another project, undertaken by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and using GHGSat’s Claire satellite, will conduct similar measurements to measure emissions from two tailings ponds and one mine face in Alberta. However, what sets EDF’s system apart is its resolution.
TROPOMI measures light in ultraviolet and visible, near-infrared and shortwave infrared spectral bands, allowing it to track pollutants including nitrogen dioxide, ozone, formaldehyde, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and of course methane. At its highest pixel resolution it can detect pollutants over an area of 7 km by 3.5 km – enough to determine the pollution over individual cities in more detail than has even been achieved before.
Geared specifically to track CH4, MethaneSAT refines this capability down to individual sites. With a pixel size of roughly 1 square km – about 1,000m by 200m – it will offer granular detail at an unprecedented scale. During a briefing following a TED Talk on the project, EDF president Fred Krupp explained: “700 of our pixels will fit into one of [TROPOMI’s]… We’ll be able to detect leaks of 250kg,” against the latter’s 7,500kg-per-hour threshold.
Under current plans, MethaneSAT would orbit the earth in intervals of less than a week. With a view path of over 200 km, and its superior resolution, EDF says satellite should not only quantify known sources of gas, but also discover and assess sources which have previously gone unknown or undetected. The data will be generated on a weekly basis and then made publically available.
The level of detail and accuracy envisioned by MethaneSAT will allow EDF to push for its impressive target of tracking 80% of oil and gas production. “That’s not to say we’ll get everything,” Hamburg qualified, “But basically we want to get the overwhelming majority. We think it’s very doable and we hope to exceed it.”
Beyond the physical system itself, the digital architecture also needs further work and Hamburg was emphatic as to the importance of reliability and quality. “There‘s a lot of heavy duty math and science involved. We’re working to make sure we have high-quality data – which would be methane flux rates [likely] in kg/hour/square km,” he explained.
It is important to remember that despite its capabilities, MethaneSAT is not a silver bullet for emissions reduction; nor is it a substitute for vigilance in maintaining local monitoring systems. “You still need the data on what is happening at the individual sites,” he said. “Some of these sites if they’re big enough will have that data, but some are just one small well that may be performing very well. We are not going to be able to describe that well’s performance, but we’ll be able to see how a collection of wells in that area perform – and you need to know if they are always performing that well, so these are complementary.”
Hamburg also believes that tracking the amount of methane lost also plays a role in ensuring the industry is serious in reducing its leakage and emissions. The loss of such large volumes of usable resources – and economic potential – creates a transparency that many companies should be responsive to, and having data to back this up will be vital in realising reduction. “The industry has demonstrated that the technology is present to contain methane effectively but we need these kinds of data to understand when and where and how these variations are happening so that we can then improve performance on a regular basis,” he added.
“In this case there’s no intermediate between the thing that’s the problem and the thing that’s the resource, they are one and the same,” he noted. “Methane in the pipe that can be used is a positive resource, methane leaking from the pipe is the problem. It could not be more direct.”
And although the project was only officially launched in April, he believes that response from the sector has been positive. “I think there’s been a lot of interest. It’s still early days since we announced it but there is interest there. I think they recognise it’s a powerful tool.”
With much of the groundwork laid, the next steps for EDF will be selecting a vendor to build the satellite itself, among other things. The group intends to secure fixed-price contracts to reduce costs and to forge in-kind relationships with other partners, but is confident that its budget will be enough to realise the project, especially as satellite costs continue to fall.
While an official launch date has yet to be decided, EDF currently plans to send MethaneSAT skywards in the second half of 2020 and no later than early 2021.
Provided it can deliver the data promised, the value of a dedicated, data-driven methane monitoring system – and one that is independent of individual government or corporate policy – cannot be overstated. Used correctly by industry, and not solely oil and gas, schemes such as MethaneSAT offer a step change in how we can begin to tackle the most harmful pollutants. “This is about transparency,” added Hamburg. “This is providing data at a scale and [at] a regularity and a level of precision that we haven’t had before, and we believe that’s a game-changer.”