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A new satellite will track climate-warming pollution. Here's why that's a big deal

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts into space. On board is a satellite with a climate solutions mission. It's designed to detect methane, a potent planet warming gas.
Courtesy SpaceX
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts into space. On board is a satellite with a climate solutions mission. It's designed to detect methane, a potent planet warming gas.

VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, Calif. — Not far from the Pacific Ocean, where just to the south, oil platforms dot the horizon, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted into space Monday with dozens of satellites on board.

Four miles away from the launch site, a crowd including scientists, engineers, and their families erupted into celebration. They were applauding largely for one satellite on board: MethaneSAT, which is built to detect methane. That's a gas that in the short term packs an even bigger planet-warming punch than carbon dioxide.

MethaneSAT – led by the Environmental Defense Fund – will have a targeted focus: to spot methane from the oil and gas industry, which leaks at various parts of the fossil fuel production process. Sometimes oil companies deliberately burn methane gas if they can't pipe it somewhere.

Reducing methane pollution can help the world meet its climate targets, but for years researchers had little understanding of where exactly methane leaks were coming from. Recent projects have helped give a clearer picture, but the data hasn't always been public, or precise – especially from oil fields, says Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) who led the MethaneSAT project.

The goal of MethaneSAT is to have a granular picture of where exactly methane comes from in oil and gas operations around the globe, in places like Texas, Russia and Nigeria. "For the first time [we'll] have high quality empirical data for an entire sector across the globe," Hamburg says.

The oil and gas industry has historically had a culture of confidentiality, says Antoine Halff, chief analyst at Kayrros, a climate analytics firm. "They like to keep their data private," he says. "There's, I think, a cultural discomfort with the transparency provided by independent monitoring."

When this satellite is fully operational in the coming months, it will provide data that will be free to the public. That will allow governments, researchers and others to have an unbiased view from space of most oil and gas operations, says Adam Brandt, a professor in the Department of Energy Science and Engineering at Stanford University who was not involved with the project.

"The beauty of having MethaneSAT," Brandt says, is "we don't have to ask [oil companies] permission nicely to go on site and make measurements, right?"

People turned to the sky to watch a rocket launch Monday afternoon in California. One of the satellites deployed into space will help scientists understand where methane emissions occur in the oil industry.
Julia Simon / NPR
/
NPR
People turned to the sky to watch a rocket launch Monday afternoon in California. One of the satellites deployed into space will help scientists understand where methane emissions occur in the oil industry.

The decision to look at oil and gas pollution

About 30% of global warming comes from human-caused methane pollution. Mark Brownstein, a senior vice president at EDF, says the question for a long time was how much methane comes from the oil and gas sector?

Other sectors also create methane pollution. Agriculture – specifically gas-belching cows and gas-emitting manure – is the single biggest source of methane in the U.S., according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But focusing on the oil and gas sector was strategic, Hamburg says. Oil and gas has a concentrated number of players, with bigger budgets to clean up their operations. "The ability to remediate is much greater and it's cost-effective," he says.

In the past six years EDF put together a team – including scientists from Harvard University and other groups – to build a satellite to get a better picture of the oil industry. The satellite has sensors specifically designed to pick up the fingerprint of the methane molecule. The sensors now orbiting in space will then send data back to Earth in the coming months.

The hope is that regulators will use this data, Hamburg says. "There's interest. There's conversations, not just with the U.S. EPA, but in other governments and other regulators," he says.

Late last year the EPA made a new rule that for the first time requires oil and gas operators to monitor, detect, and fix methane leaks.

A spokesperson for the EPA said in an emailed statement that the EPA's new rule "has a mechanism for third-party notifiers using approved remote sensing technologies to be certified – enabling them to notify EPA of methane super-emitter events." Super-emitter events happen when large amounts of methane are released. "EDF, along with other owners of remote sensing technologies, may apply to be certified," the EPA said.

Aaron Padilla, vice president of corporate policy at the American Petroleum Institute, the country's largest oil and gas lobby, says his industry has many years of experience using their own satellites and technologies to identify and then reduce methane emissions.

"Our industry's experience shows that one really needs to use a range of technologies working together across their strengths and weaknesses in order to get a truly accurate picture of where you have methane emissions," Padilla says.

Ultimately, Hamburg says he hopes that data from the MethaneSAT will move more oil and gas companies to clean up methane pollution.

"This is an industry that recognizes that their reputation, their markets are under threat," Hamburg says. "So, if you're going to compete in a world in which the demand is going down, you want to prove that you're a better actor."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.