Emission management

A Constellation of Satellites Hunting Methane Leaks Is Launching Soon

At least a dozen satellites are being built to orbit the Earth in search of methane leaks. They will be measuring methane flows, and some will be able to identify the source down to the facility level.

The new MethaneSAT methane-mapping satellite.
Source: Environmental Defense Fund.

A blowout in Ohio in 2018 was the first ever where the emissions could be measured from space, though it was at best a rough estimate based on data gathered on the 13th day after the XTO Energy well control event began.

A year later, a blowout of a Devon well near Victoria, Texas, was measured starting the day after it occurred, with data collected on 3 days over the next 2 weeks. Using the measurement of carbon dioxide, it was estimated that the flare was 87% effective in burning about 4,800 metric tons of the leaking methane gas.

Emission estimates varied wildly, and both the Ohio and Texas efforts to use satellites led to technical papers to consider how they addressed this challenge.

For those with blowouts next year, chances are a lot better methane-emission data would be available because of the launch of a constellation of specialized methane-measurement satellites by the two groups that played a key role in the earlier tests.

In presentations this week at CERAWeek by IHS Markit, GHGSat said it has two methane-detection satellites in orbit and plans the launch of eight more, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said it is moving forward with the launch of its first one next year.

Both are aiming to cover the lion’s share of oil and gas operations and measure the flow rate of the gas rather than concentrations in the atmosphere.

They said they can do that far more accurately than was possible with the general-purpose climate observation satellites by focusing their equipment on the wavelength of methane.

GHGSat said its satellites, which are about the size of a microwave oven, can measure the potent greenhouse gas from an elevation of 500 km and up. They are placed in polar orbit, which allows them to cover the globe every 2 weeks as the Earth rotates. Launching more satellites will allow more frequent looks.

There are differences in the GHGSat and EDF designs, reflecting their contrasting missions.

The Canadian company GHGSat, whose satellite initiative was initially supported by Schlumberger and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, is building tiny satellites with extremely high resolution to serve clients in the oil and mining businesses.

During the presentation, Stéphane Germain, chief executive officer of GHGSat, displayed an image and said its satellites can tell if it is “coming from a particular facility and even tell what part of the facility it is coming from.”

The company also sells the services of similarly equipped planes that can create more-detailed images using similar equipment at elevations of 3000 m and higher.

EDF raised $100 million from donors, including Elon Musk, and has hired Raytheon to build a satellite equipped with a detector from Ball Aerospace. It can survey an area that is 260 km wide. That is far wider than the GHGSat satellites, which have the advantage of being able to zero in on smaller details when looking for leaks.

The environmental group points out its device is more sensitive to methane emissions, detecting levels down to two parts per billion.

When EDF’s MethaneSat is launched “it will be the first satellite that can give us [methane-emission] concentrations for all major oil facilities on land,” said Fred Krupp, the president of the EDF.

An early image from a methane-detection satellite launched by GHGSat of methane emissions over an Asian oil and gas facility.
Source: GHGSat.

How Accurate Is It?

These new satellites could be better data-collection options for the World Bank’s program that tracks flaring with the goal of sharply reducing this wasteful practice.

“The progress being made in satellite monitoring of methane emissions is indeed very impressive. The latest generation of e.g., GHGSat is greatly improved in both resolution and accuracy,” said Huw Martyn Howells, an oil gas consultant for the World Bank on the project which has used the light emitted by the flames from large flares to estimate the volume of gas burned.

He is interested in testing GHGSat’s capabilities in accurately measuring methane that flares fail to burn.

“To the best of my understanding, these satellites do not yet have the resolution to discriminate the emissions from a flare from other CH4 emissions that may be occurring at an oil-production site,” he said. In addition, he wants to see an assessment of the accuracy and uncertainty of the measures of the volume and mass of those emissions.

For oil industry engineers, the fact that methane-measurement technology was one of the most interesting oil and gas technology advances at CERAWeek’s innovation panels shows how climate change will be affecting their jobs.

This wasn’t a venue for speakers skeptical about whether carbon emissions by humans are driving changes in the climate. But one professor taking about the challenges that must be addressed said more and better data on the sources of global warming—methane being one of the most potent ones—is needed to fill a significant gap in climate-change science.

While there is a lot of talk about climate change contributing to weather disasters, from massive forest fires during heat waves in California to the recent extreme cold weather that caused massive power losses in Texas, most of it is after the fact.

“We can predict a Texas cold wave, but we can only do that 2 to 4 weeks ahead of time; we cannot do it 2 to 4 months ahead of time,” said Arun Majumdar, a professor at Stanford. He said more data and new modeling tools are needed so that factors that climate scientists use to predict massive changes 20 and 30 years from now can be integrated into weather models. Those models may then enable warnings to be provided months in advance for business and government leaders to use in planning to limit the damage.

The early returns from satellites gathering methane-emissions data show wide seasonal swings. While methane-emissions-data gathering has sharply increased the estimates of oil industry emissions, the data suggest this problem is more complex.

Oil companies have an important role to play as do other businesses, but Majumdar said the solution will require major changes by consumers as well.

“The question is really how do you take lessons from the Microsofts and the Amazons and scale them up to societal use of energy, which is a much bigger problem,” he said.

For those looking for a sense of that complexity, without wading through a lot of technical writing, a look at a global methane-emissions map created by GHGSat based on multiple satellite data sources offers a feel for the problems.

This map shows weekly measures of the volume of methane in the atmosphere, with a slider that allows a viewer to move from 11 April 2020 to the present.

An image of Saudi Arabia from last December showed much of the country covered by red, the color code for the highest level of methane emissions. That would seem to be proof of a connection between its massive oil operations and those emissions.

During the same time, the two most populous countries on Earth, India and China, were showing high methane emissions, suggesting countries with huge populations and fast-growing economies also generate a lot of methane emissions.

But push the slide on the map back to April 2020 and the red fades in all three countries, though all remain at the high end of moderate emissions.

In Texas, the map suggests the emissions are lower than any of those countries with much of the oil-rich Permian Basin showing green, but it also shows a red shift during the winter months.

While the problem is beyond what the oil industry alone can solve, the satellite that EDF plans to launch next year is built to keep it focused on doing its part.

Krupp pointed out that past work has shown that oil-industry estimates have “wildly understated” methane emissions, which are a many-times-more-potent source of global warming than carbon dioxide. As data gathering increases, the information will be publicly available and there will be “great rewards for those who have cleaned up and a motivation for those who have yet to clean up.”