Eye in the Sky

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, packing many times the climate-altering power of carbon dioxide. It’s also the primary component in natural gas, which means the production, processing, and distribution of natural gas is a major source of pollution that leads to global warming.

That’s especially true here in Pennsylvania, the nation’s second largest natural gas producer. Substantially lowering emissions from our gas fields would be a notable victory in the fight against climate change, and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is currently working to advance that goal through new permitting requirements. The trouble is, we don’t have a good idea of how much methane is actually being released. Currently, the only data to which DEP has access are self-reported by the industry, and are required only for certain types of operations.

In recent years, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been working with academic partners in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to close the information gap. Building on research from Carnegie Mellon University, an EDF analysis published earlier this year estimated that methane emissions from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry could in fact be upwards of five times the amount reported in DEP’s official inventory. At the current rate, researchers projected, Pennsylvania is on track to exceed 5 million tons of methane emitted between now and 2025.

The good news is that relatively simple, low-cost interventions can put a huge dent in those numbers… if companies and regulators are able to pinpoint where they’re needed most. In particular, spotting so-called “super emitters” like the 2015 Aliso Canyon leak in southern California could dramatically lower overall emissions. But we need more data, much more than scientists can gather using existing methods. That’s why EDF is taking their research to the next level – which, as it turns out, is several hundred miles above the earth’s surface.

MethaneSAT is a research satellite designed to find and measure methane emissions. Unveiled this week in a TED Talks presentation by EDF President Fred Krupp, the satellite is slated to launch in late 2020 or early 2021. It’s billed as the most powerful instrument ever built for measuring methane emissions, capable of monitoring a surface area that accounts for more than 80 percent of global gas production.

“Years of data gathered by earth-bound researchers confirm that the oil and gas industry has a serious methane issue,” said Mark Brownstein, EDF Senior Vice President for Climate & Energy. “We need to go much farther, much faster. Data from MethaneSAT will give everyone involved a crucial tool to accelerate the process.”

EDF says the data will be shared freely, giving natural gas producers an opportunity to improve their own bottom line by boosting efficiency, and giving policymakers and regulators a better means for holding emitters accountable. The information gathered may be of particular value to researchers who will be better able not just to identify problems, but also to more quickly measure the effectiveness of different solutions. What’s more, the technology opens a window onto a whole range of methane emissions data beyond the oil and gas industry, including agricultural and industrial sources, landfills, and more.

But better inputs are only half of the equation. Gas-producing states like Pennsylvania will have to be ready to act on what MethaneSAT tells us.

“Its data stream will allow us to map that pollution so that everyone can see it,” Krupp told the TED audience in Vancouver on Wednesday. “Then it’s all about turning data into action.