Methane Satellites Proliferate, Turning to AI To Handle Data Deluge
Declining costs to launch monitoring satellites, as well as artificial intelligence, which makes parsing terabytes of emissions data feasible, have given the oil and gas industry an emerging tool for environmental stewardship.
In early 2024, a new satellite known as MethaneSAT will beam its first megabyte of data to Earth, where scientists stand ready with advanced modeling and machine learning—artificial intelligence (AI)—to pinpoint and measure emissions from leaking oil and gas production sites worldwide.
Around the same time, a coalition of partners led by the nonprofit Carbon Mapper project will launch the first of two satellites with the urgent mission to capture high-resolution imagery of methane escaping from oil and gas facilities, as well as strong point sources such as landfills or agricultural operations. Carbon Mapper's data will be used to inform actions to reduce these potent greenhouse gases as well as support initiatives such as Climate TRACE, a collaboration of academic and private-sector players who are training artificial intelligence to analyze and calculate greenhouse-gas emission sources.
High-tech methane detection is gathering pace against the backdrop of environmental, social, and governance imperatives and the energy transition, which have bolstered renewable energy and drawn increasing scrutiny to fossil fuels. Declining costs to launch monitoring satellites, as well as AI, which makes parsing terabytes of emissions data feasible, have given the oil and gas industry an emerging tool for environmental stewardship.
"Over the past 5 years, and I definitely anticipate that over just the next 12 months alone, there are a lot of satellites that we're kind of keeping our tabs on that are expected to go into orbit," Emmanuel Corral, senior emissions analyst for the Center of Emissions Excellence at S&P Global Commodity Insights, said in an interview. "There are a few more within the next couple of months, so the landscape is really just constantly changing and evolving as more and more technology goes up in space."
Investors Are Watching
Increasingly, timely satellite images of methane plumes visible on dashboards and publicly available emissions data are also giving the finance sector critical information, proponents of the technology say.
"Knowing who's a better operator, who's the worst operator, who's leaking a lot—I think that becomes very material to [investors]," said Deborah Gordon, a senior principal with RMI, a nonprofit that leads the modeling of emissions from the oil and gas sector for Climate TRACE. "The other party that's been very interested in this is the insurance and reinsurance industry."
Companies are spending at different rates on machine learning for emissions management, but there is immense interest in using AI to cut emissions and maximize efficiency, according to interviews and public remarks of various industry players.
At the same time, some question the wisdom of spending billions on satellites and cloud computing to try to solve a problem that has been known and largely neglected for decades.
"Intelligence by itself, whether human or artificial, doesn't create a commitment to fix a problem," Clark Williams-Derry, an analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said in an email. "Knowledge isn't the same thing as a will to act. There's a risk that we'll pretend that AI will 'fix' a problem, when all it will do is give us yet another source of information that we'll collectively choose to neglect."
Leak detection is a necessary component of methane mitigation, but measurement alone does not equal emissions reductions, agreed Erin Tullos, a senior advisor to the United Nations' Oil and Gas Methane Partnership.
"What you want to do is ensure that your measurements are sufficiently accurate to inform your mitigation strategies," Tullos said in a May 2023 report about methane mitigation published by the Industrial Decarbonization Network. "You could try and accurately measure everything. The problem with that scenario is that it might just create a lot of cost and measurement for the sake of measurement."
Some also question the wisdom of spending potentially billions to track methane leaks from space. How far the satellite/AI field goes in pursuit of methane reductions also depends on public funding and private investment, observers say.
GHGSat, a company with nine satellites in orbit serving the oil and gas industry, is the first of its kind in the US. The company in 2022 received a $7 million, 5-year federal grant to support NASA with methane data, but federal funding for such projects has been largely absent.