More than a dozen governments and companies have or are planning to launch satellites that measure concentrations of heat-trapping gases such as methane, which is blamed for about one quarter of man-made global warming. They are looking to track nations, industries, companies and even individual facilities to identify some of the biggest contributors to climate change.

“Space-based technologies are allowing us for the first time to quickly and cheaply measure greenhouse gases,” said Mark Brownstein, a senior vice president at Environmental Defense Fund, which plans to launch its MethaneSAT in 2021. “Oftentimes both government and industry are not fully aware of the magnitude of the opportunity to cut emissions. With that data, they can take action.”

Steam billows from the cooling towers of the Yallourn coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley, Australia. Quantifying the damage done by emissions like these can be difficult. Bloomberg/Carla Gottgens

Regulators are taking note. California is partnering with Planet Labs Inc. on a satellite to help it “pinpoint individual methane plumes” from oil and gas facilities, as well as other sources such as landfills, dairies and waste water plants, Stanley Young, a spokesman for the state’s Air Resources Board, said in an email. Researchers have suggested that methane is underestimated in most inventories, he said.

California was the site of the largest natural gas leak in U.S. history in 2015 when a broken well outside Los Angeles owned by Sempra Energy released more than 100,000 tons of methane before being plugged, federal and university researchers said in a study published in Science the following year. The utility in August estimated costs associated with the leak at $1.01 billion.

The information may reinforce shareholder pressure on companies to disclose and reduce emissions. In September, Exxon Mobil joined the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which targets to cut aggregated upstream industry methane emissions by more than 20 percent by 2025, and Chevron said this year it plans to tie executive compensation to meeting emissions targets.

Leaks constitute energy that could otherwise be sold. Oil and gas firms can cut 40 to 50 percent of their methane emissions at no net cost, which in terms of climate impact, is the equivalent of shutting two-thirds of the coal-fired generation in Asia, according to Laura Cozzi, the International Energy Agency’s chief energy modeler.

Other emissions sources are more difficult to track because they are more diffuse. Agricultural supply chains, including domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep, which emit gas as part of their digestive process, represent the biggest anthropogenic contributor to methane globally, followed by the oil and gas industry, landfills and coal mining, according to the Global Methane Initiative.

But shareholder pressure is building. Investors representing $6.5 trillion in January called on fast-food giants including McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza and Yum Brands to implement policies that set targets and help lower greenhouse gas emissions released from agricultural supply chains.

Reducing the amount of methane emitted by livestock means more nutrients are converted into meat, according to Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef Executive Director Ruaraidh Petre. One way to improve the efficiency of an animal’s life cycle is through improving the quality of feed or pasture and introducing a certain type of seaweed into sheep’s diet has been shown to cut their methane emissions by 80 percent, he said.

The satellite projects are a mix of public and private efforts that vary from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite to Montreal-based GHGSat Inc., which plans a constellation of satellites. ESA, whose craft launched in 2017, released a global map of methane offering insights into where the gas originated. The new satellites can detect invisible bands of the light spectrum, allowing for the identification of gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.

“Seeing exactly who is emitting what, where, how much and when is a must in order to reduce emissions and stop climate change,” said Yotam Ariel, the founder of Bluefield Technologies Inc., which plans to have its first gas-measuring microsatellite in orbit by the end of next year.

Bluefield is one of several startups entering the sector, including GHGSat and San Francisco-based Orbital Sidekick Inc. that will launch satellites and sensors to monitor leaks at oil and gas facilities. Bluefield is funded in part by Village Global LP, a venture capital firm backed by tech titans including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. GHGSat’s investors include the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, Schlumberger, Space Angels and the Business Development Bank of Canada.

The new crop of satellites have yet to demonstrate the accuracy required to monitor emissions from natural sources like wetlands, or the agricultural sector, but may be useful in helping identify and reduce large point source emissions, according to Lesley Ott, a research meteorologist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“We are in the process of building a data store of emissions from all facilities globally,” said Stephane Germain, president of GHGSat, which aims to have a dozen emissions-monitoring satellites in orbit in the next three years. “Our ambition is to understand carbon dioxide and methane emissions from every single one of those facilities and track them over time.”

The cost to launch a 5-kilogram cubesat into low Earth orbit is as little as $295,000, according to the website of Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. Final costs can fluctuate depending on the orbit, timeframe, launch vehicle and other factors.

Other efforts, like the EDF’s MethaneSAT, will seek to capture changes on more regional levels. Typically, satellites that scan wider swaths of the Earth offer lower resolution than those with more precise measurements, that usually have a narrower field of vision.

Tracking greenhouse gases by satellite is still in its infancy and its important to combine the data with ground-based calculations, according to Sentinel-5 Precursor Mission Manager Claus Zehner. Even clouds and air pollution can distort measurements, he said.

“The future is to combine different satellite measurements in space together with ground-based measurements and with models,” said Zehner. “You need all those components.”


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