Satellites put the world’s biggest methane emitters on the map

Image: GHGSat

Orange and yellow pixels flash over American drilling heartlands around the Gulf Coast, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. Dark red stretches across Middle East and China, while disturbing dots of color pop up around Greenland’s coast. This is the dangerous world of atmospheric methane emissions, one of the most powerful drivers of global warning—and it’s visible to the public for the first time.

GHGSat Inc. released a new methane map on Wednesday that uses data from the company’s two satellites, which were launched earlier this year and can detect methane emitted by oil and gas wells, coal mines, power plants, farms and factories. It’s part of a wave of climate surveillance that will make it possible to hold countries and companies accountable for meeting targets to reduce and eventually eliminate planet-warming pollution.

“We’ve got a situation where for more than the last decade there’s been a significant and unexplained upward tick in global methane atmospheric concentrations,” said Jonathan Elkind, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. In a paper published last week, Elkind outlined the way satellite-driven transparency will better allow investors to identify which companies aren’t backing their goals with action.

The time-lapse map published by GHGSat covers a six-month stretch through October 10—less than two weeks ago—based on weekly images captured from space. Average methane emissions are represented in green, at about 1,800 parts per billion, with yellow above average and dark red at the high end of the scale.

The early readings cover the lockdowns that aimed to slow the Covid-19 pandemic, which devastated demand for oil and sent methane emissions lower. Intensification on the map shows how quickly methane can build during the hot summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, with orange and red pixels along the Arctic coast and around Beijing.

The map identifies concentration of methane across the troposhere, where naturally occurring emissions such as from wetlands mingle with those caused by human activity. Mountains can be seen trapping methane, such as in Southern California near the Sierra Nevada range or in South Asia below the Himalayas. Methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, although its greenhouse impact fades much faster.

GHGSat claims its satellite offers the highest-resolution methane data publicly available, and the it sells access to companies ranging from Royal Dutch Shell plc to landfill operators. In the next year, GHGSat plans to release additional data that will also quantify emissions, said Stephane Germain, president of the Montreal-based firm. That will make it clear how much methane is released by drilling in the U.S. Permian Basin every week, for example. The company is also developing a carbon dioxide-monitoring satellite that may be launched into orbit in 2022.

Satellite data will ultimately transform the way nations are held accountable for voluntary commitments under the Paris Agreement, which calls for limiting global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Granular data that can pinpoint emissions down to specific facilities will also help track corporate missions. “Very soon nobody is going to be able to hide from methane leakage,” former BP plc chief executive officer Bob Dudley predicted in 2018. 

Other organizations are also working to root out unknown emissions leaks. The Environmental Defense Fund, Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory are developing MethaneSat, a project to measure human-made emissions by satellite and supply that data to the public. NASA is designing a stationary satellite called GeoCarb to collect 10 million daily observations of the concentrations of carbon gases across the Americas.

New insights into methane emitters have already prompted regulatory action. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation into Florida Gas Transmission Pipeline for a possible Clean Air Act violation after Bluefield Technologies Inc. discovered a mystery leak using satellite imagery, and Bloomberg News identified the likely source. Last year, GHGSat found a giant methane plume in Central Asia oilfield; getting it stopped was the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.

Some trends are already visible in the new GHGSat map. China appears to have above-average background readings for natural reasons, Germain said, but methane emissions from rice paddies and coal mines may also contribute to the red zones. Germain noted that China is home to 10,000 of the world’s 12,000 coal mines.

As expected, areas with high levels of oil and gas drilling activity—from West Texas and New Mexico to the Caspian Sea and parts of the Persian Gulf—show higher levels of methane, likely caused by leaks and flaring. But there are also high methane levels in parts of northern Canada and Siberia with little to no industrial activity. It’s also unclear what’s causing red zones to emerge across the Sahara desert, Germain said, and it’s possible that increasing concentrations in Saudi Arabia may partly be the result of winds carrying methane from other regions, not just the local production of fossil fuel.

“If you are a company and you see more red in the areas that you operate in, you should care,” said Germain. “A very small number of sites are responsible for the vast majority of man-made emissions globally. If you can find those industrial emissions, you can have a significant impact.”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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