The fight to fight ‘clouds’ of methane so big they can be seen from space

Technological advances allow an ever-increasing fleet of satellites to try to help contain these leaks by identifying them from space; for experts, the mission is vital in the fight against global warming.

Stopping methane leaks from landfills, oil fields, natural gas pipelines, and other sources is one of the most powerful tools we have to rapidly reduce global warming.

The threat was invisible to the eye: tons of methane rising into the sky, escaping natural gas pipelines winding through Siberia. Long ago, plumes of potent greenhouse gases released by Russian oil operations last year might have gone unnoticed. But, equipped with powerful new imaging technologies, a methane “hunter” satellite “sniffed” the emissions and tracked them to their sources.

Thanks to rapid technological advances, an ever-increasing fleet of satellites is now trying to help contain these leaks by identifying them from space. The mission is vital, and several recent reports have sounded the increasingly urgent alarm for cutting methane emissions.

Although it is shorter-lived and less abundant than carbon dioxide (CO2), methane is much more powerful at capturing heat and its impact on global warming is more than 80 times greater (than CO2) in the short term. About 60% of the world’s methane emissions are produced by human activities – most of it from agriculture, waste disposal, and fossil fuel production. According to estimates by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF, its acronym in English), methane generated by human activity is responsible for at least 25% of current global warming.

Stopping these emissions is our best hope for quickly curbing global warming, as highlighted by the United Nations Environment Program’s new Global Methane Assessment.

“This is the most powerful tool we have to reduce global warming and all the effects of climate change over the next 30 years,” says Drew Shindell, professor of Earth Sciences at Duke University and the lead author of the UN report. Scientists stress that considerable reductions in carbon dioxide and methane are critical to avoiding extreme climate change. “They do not replace CO2 reduction, but complement it,” according to Shindell.

According to the UN assessment, the roughly 380 million tons of methane released annually by human activities could be cut by nearly half this decade with available methods — and most are economically viable. This would prevent about 0.3 °C of warming by the 2040s — and we would gain precious time to control emissions of other greenhouse gases.

The easiest gains can be made by repairing leaks in pipelines, preventing deliberate releases — such as venting unwanted gases from drilling rigs — and other actions in the oil and gas industry, according to the UN report. Capturing gases from decomposing materials in landfills and reducing gas emissions from ruminants in herds would also help.

At the moment, however, the trend is going in the opposite direction: the concentration of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere has been increasing over the past five years, according to the National Oceanic Administration’s Annual Greenhouse Gas Index. and Atmospheric of the United States (Noaa, its acronym in English).

And despite the pandemic, 2020 saw the biggest jump in a year. The causes of the recent spike are uncertain but could include natural gas fracking, increased emissions of methane-producing microbes spurred by rising temperatures, or a combination of natural and man-made sources.

All of this, experts say, emphasizes the need to track and eliminate all leaks or sources that can be controlled. But tracking emissions back to their source is not an easy task. Leaks are often intermittent and easily go unnoticed. Terrestrial sensors can detect them in local areas, but their coverage is limited. Aircraft and drone surveys are costly and time-consuming, and air access is restricted in much of the world.

This is where a sophisticated fleet of satellites comes in — some recently launched and others soon to be placed into orbit.

Over the next two years, new satellite projects are slated for launch — including the Carbon Mapper (“Carbon Mapper”), a California public-private partnership, and MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund — that will help filling the picture with unprecedented scope and detail.

According to experts, these efforts will be critical, not only to identify leaks but also to develop standards and guide their implementation, two measures seriously lacking.

Older satellites, such as the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Gosat, launched in 2009, were able to detect methane, but its resolution was not sufficient to identify specific sources.

But space technology is now advancing rapidly, increasing the resolution of sensors, reducing their size, and achieving a number of cutting-edge capabilities. Powerful new eyes in space include the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5P (launched in 2017), the Italian Space Agency’s Prism (launched in 2019), and systems operated by the Canadian private company GHGSat (with satellites launched in 2016, 2020, and 2021 ).

Companies like France’s Kayrros are using artificial intelligence to amplify satellite imagery, alongside air and ground data, to provide detailed reports on methane.

Last year, methane “hunter” satellites made several disturbing discoveries. Among them: despite the pandemic, methane emissions from oil and gas operations in Russia increased by 32% in 2020. Satellites also observed considerable releases in pipelines in Turkmenistan, a landfill in Bangladesh, a natural gas field in Canada, and in coal mines in the Appalachian Basin in the United States.

At any given time, according to Kayrros, there are about a hundred high-volume methane spills worldwide, plus a slew of smaller spills that significantly increase the total volume. Looking at space emissions on a global scale provides “an important new tool to combat climate change,” according to the European Space Agency.

Now, Carbon Mapper is developing what promises to be the most accurate and sensitive tool ever created for locating point sources. The project plans to launch two satellites in 2023, scaling up to reach a constellation of up to 20 satellites that will provide near-constant monitoring of methane and CO2 around the world.

Partners include NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California Atmospheric Resources Council, the private satellite company Planet, universities, and nonprofit organizations, funded by large private donors such as Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The inspiration is the current absence of global monitoring, says Riley Duren, a University of Arizona remote sensing scientist and chief executive of the Carbon Mapper. “There is not a single organization that has the institutional culture, authorization, and resources necessary to provide an operational monitoring system for greenhouse gases,” according to Duren. “At least not on time.” Duren compares the Carbon Mapper with the US National Weather System, as it will provide an “essential public service” with its continuous and routine monitoring of greenhouse gases.

The main focus of the project is to find the super-emitters, says Duren. He and his colleagues conducted an earlier study through research on methane sensing aircraft in oil and gas operations, landfills, sewage treatment plants, and agricultural areas in California and concluded that about half of the state’s methane emissions come from less than 1% of your infrastructure. Landfills produced the largest share of the state’s total emissions, according to the survey, followed by agriculture, followed by oil and gas.

The survey indicated the need for “global scaling and operationalization, going into space,” says Duren. The satellites will employ “hyper spectrum” spectrometers designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which, according to the project’s website, will provide “unparalleled sensitivity, resolution, and versatility.” The mini-fridge-sized satellites will be able to locate emissions with an accuracy of up to 30 m, enough to identify the specific equipment causing the leak.

When emissions are detected, subscribers to an early warning service will be notified within 24 hours by Planet, a San Francisco-based private satellite operator that will build and manage the Carbon Mapping satellites.

The satellites will enhance the California Air Resources Council’s monitoring with broader and more frequent coverage, says John Herner, head of the Council’s emissions monitoring program. Monitoring is now done once a quarter, he said. When the full constellation of Carbon Mapping satellites is launched, it will be done almost daily. “We’ll have much better control of what’s happening [and] when,” says Herner, “and we’ll be able to deal with any leaks more quickly.”

Also joining the “hunters” in orbit will be the satellite MethaneSAT, which will scan wider areas — up to 200 km per swath, but with a lower resolution of 100 m. This program uses a special algorithm that calculates the flow rate from the satellite data. “So instead of just shooting, you actually get a movie,” says MethaneSAT Director Cassandra Ely. This is unprecedented in satellite sensing and an asset in tracking windblown plumes to their source, she says.

MethaneSAT will focus on the global oil and gas industry and intends to be sensitive enough to reveal the huge amount of small methane leaks that can account for the majority of emissions, says Ely. Findings will be delivered to industry operators, regulators, investors, and the public in near real-time. The data, she said, will help “prioritize what makes the most sense in terms of reducing and mitigating emissions.”

Much of today’s methane control approach relies on voluntary action by the oil and gas industry. Satellites can help with that, according to Shindell, the lead author of the UN report, and others, identifying leaks that, if stopped, will bring savings or profits to these companies. “If you capture the methane instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere, that will be very useful,” says Shindell. “Therefore, there is a good financial incentive to avoid waste.”

But if gas prices aren’t high enough, operators may find the expense of finding, stemming, and using fugitive emissions isn’t worth it. “It’s really critical to have stricter regulations,” says Shindell.

Current methane emissions regulations are a patchwork of local and national measures, with few international agreements setting specific targets, the UN report indicates. In the United States, state policies range from reasonably strict controls in some states, such as California and Colorado, to little implementation in Texas and others.

Meanwhile, the European Union is currently drafting new regulations for emissions from the energy sector. But other big emitters, like Russia, have almost no methane restriction policies in place, according to the International Energy Agency’s analysis.

In anticipation of the UN climate change conference in November, COP26, the International Energy Forum this month launched its Methane Measurement Methodology Project, providing member countries with access to Sentinel 5P satellite data and Kayrros analysis, to provide better control of the energy industry’s emissions.

Satellite data could provide a useful policy tool to force countries to curb their emissions, the scientists said. Accurate measurements of Russian pipeline leaks, for example, could allow the European Union, as a major Russian oil and gas consumer, to impose tariff barriers based on emissions from production and transport. Better monitoring could also help in recent lawsuits by shareholders and judges forcing major fossil fuel companies to rein in their greenhouse gas emissions.

Whatever measures come into effect, lawmakers and regulators will need to look into space to control whether these rules are working, pinpoint violators, and encourage change.

Source: BBC Future

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