It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a Methane Detecting Satellite!

December 21, 2018

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs there are currently 4,858 registered objects orbiting the Earth. The Union of Concerned Scientist’s Satellite Database states of those 4,858 objects, 1,886 of them are operational satellites. The objects are registered to 78 different countries. The country with the most objects registered is the United States of America with 1,807. Coming in a close second is the Russian Federation with 1,512 objects. The objects range in use from telecommunications to optical imaging.

A recent addition to the objects orbiting the Earth are satellites capable of monitoring greenhouse gas emissions. Montreal-based company GHGSat Inc. launched its satellite Claire in 2016 to monitor greenhouse gas emissions. Claire’s lightweight imaging spectrometer can focus on a section as small as 25 square meters. Claire has been used to monitor over 2,000 sites around the world. Since launching Claire, GHGSat Inc. has raised $10 million in which it plans to build two more satellites, improving upon Claire. A satellite was also launched by the European Space Agency to map plumes of “methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and various aerosols over industrial facilities.”

A recent addition to objects orbiting the Earth are satellites capable of monitoring greenhouse gas emissions.

Methane leaks not only are a loss of product and money for companies, but also are a violation of regulations in some places. Methane leaks can come from a variety of sources including fossil fuel production, agricultural production, and forest fires. Verifying these types of leaks can be difficult for companies when they have multiple sites and a complex array of equipment. Additionally, since the leaks can come from various places they can be expensive to monitor. It costs the United States industry an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion a year for methane leakage from natural gas facilities. The greenhouse gas monitoring satellites could be the solution to having more up to date, accurate data to verify where the emissions are coming from. This type of monitoring could be beneficial to policy makers as they attempt to combat greenhouse gas emissions like methane.

As regulatory systems like cap-and-trade or methane leak programs become more prevalent this type of satellite monitoring technology may become more attractive to private companies to leverage. California already has a cap-and-trade system in place where this type of monitoring satellite could be useful. California Governor Jerry Brown’s goal is to launch California’s own state satellite by the end of 2021. California’s satellite would be used to monitor methane emissions in the state and be used to continue implementation of the state’s existing methane leak detection program.

As some states continue to increase their methane emission monitoring, at a federal level the Obama era methane rules are being changed. The Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency is planning to release on Monday, October 15th amendments to the oil and gas methane rule. It is anticipated the Environmental Protection Agency will lessen the frequency of monitoring requirements for greenhouse gas leaks. Theses amendments will be open to public comment until December 2018. The Bureau of Land Management who oversees methane control of oil and gas facilities on public lands has also proposed changing their methane leak rules. The Bureau of Land Management’s proposal would scale-back the Obama era methane regulations. This has been met with pushback from states and environmental groups who have gone to the court system in an attempt to challenge the Bureau of Land Management’s change. A key point of contention in the dispute is over the Bureau of Land Management’s Mineral Leasing Act authority with regards to not wasting oil or gas on public lands. Part of the theory of putting in place more stringent methane regulations was venting, flaring, or leaking methane was a waste of resources and a loss of revenue.