Methane tracking satellites

Methane tracking satellites

A satellite photo of the screen. The landscape in ocher tones is rarely recognizable. Antoine Benoit, Kairos engineer, understands the picture: we are in the middle of Russia in 2019. One more “Hostility”. Large yellow pixels make up the path of several tens of kilometers. The first hypothesis is that it will be massive emissions of methane. This greenhouse gas, the second most emitted gas behind carbon dioxide (CO2), has eighty times more powerful heating energy in twenty years.

Investigation. Monitoring methane emissions from the ground to space

How did this super pollution get there? Methane emissions have many potential sources. One-third of human emissions are associated with fossil fuels: methane is one of the main components of natural gas, which is released during extraction, but also at the level of oil and coal deposits. It is then released directly into the atmosphere, or burned (these are popular combustibles found near oil wells) and a portion of these methane emissions can be combined with leaks during transport.

New generation satellites

Back to our satellite photo. Antoine Benoit exaggerates it on the map of the global energy infrastructure, revealing that emissions occurred near a pipeline. Several technical tests – for example, the direction of the wind – confirm that a large leak of methane is most likely at this location, which is connected to energy infrastructure.

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Discussion. Is it possible to control the emission of imported methane?

A few years ago, exercise was almost impossible. “These findings are being implemented by the next generation of satellites and computers’ computer capabilities.” Says Antoine Rostand, one of the founders of Kayrros. The French company is based on data from the Sentinel 5P satellite launched in 2017 by the European Space Agency. It orbits the earth every day. Unlike traditional surveillance equipment (aircraft, drones, infrared cameras) that cannot be used every day, surveillance from space helps to identify potential leaks on a daily basis. With one limitation: they can only detect massive leaks.

Underestimated performances

What’s the point? “Our customers may be owners of oil or gas fields, but those who do not operate on site, Antoine Rostand explains. They may also be investors who want to measure the risks associated with the carbon track or their portfolio. ⁇

Read. Fuels, waste, livestock … How to reduce methane emissions

Kairos is not the only company that has established itself in this space. Canadian company GHGSat has launched its own satellites and counts oil and gas companies among its customers: Chevron, Shell, Total and Exxon. In 2023, the American Environmental NGO Environmental Protection Fund will launch its own high-definition satellite to more accurately measure methane emissions into the atmosphere.

This type of data offers valuable lessons. In February, a study by researchers from CNRS, CEA and Kayrros revealed 1,200 episodes of “super-emissions” related to the oil and gas sector. Most come from six countries: Turkmenistan (one-third), Russia, the United States, Iran, Kazakhstan and Algeria. These unreported leaks alone would have accounted for 8% to 12% of global methane emissions between 2019 and 2020. 2022 IEA studyBased on the satellite data, it was concluded that 70% of the energy sector emissions were underestimated.

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Rapid reduction capability

“This data is mainly used by researchers, but the interest of companies is increasing, Jasmine Cooper, a researcher at Imperial Research College in London. Especially since these methane emissions are so hard for them to cover. ⁇ In the context of higher gas prices, they may also find economic interest in it: between 2017 and 2021, according to the IEA, 45% of methane emissions in the energy sector can be avoided without incurring additional costs. The value of the recovered gas. Because of the losses – for the companies – the losses of resources.

“Leaks are the hardest thing to detect: once detected, they are often cheap to remove,” he said. Jonathan Banks joins US Air Force’s Clean Air Task Force on Methane Responsibility.

Technical barriers

So are satellites a miracle solution? “They are defined by technical barriers: clarity, but cloud cover or wind, which prevents certain emissions from being detected,” Shadow Jasmine Cooper. That is why the detection solution is not unique, but must be combined with other land measurements. ⁇ Although their clarity is good, they can never detect small leaks that require regular monitoring.

However, some countries have established demanding surveillance standards. In the United States, the first restriction was imposed in 2014 only on the state of Colorado. The European Union first proposed a regulatory plan in this regard in December 2021.

“What is always important is how governments place and enforce regulations, Lena Hoagland-Isaacson, researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.. If regulations do not force companies to reduce their emissions, technologies will be of little use. “Regardless of the solutions implemented, it is important to remember that the solution to be followed is to get out of the fossil fuels,” he said. She finishes.

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The chronology of the growing political focus

One hundred countries, driven by the United States and the European Union in November 2021, are committed to reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030, compared to 2020.

At the same time, the United States presented for the first time a speech proposing to control methane emissions in its region, at the federal level, especially in the energy sector.

In December 2021, the European Commission proposed a regulation targeting the energy sector. Operators should monitor their installations every three months and repair any leaks within five days. The Commission wants to ban certain polluting practices by manufacturers such as conventional combustion.

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About the Author: Cory Weinberg

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