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First-of-its-Kind Satellite to Track Methane Emissions in Oil, Natural Gas Sector

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) plans to boldly go where no man has gone before, laying plans to launch a satellite into space to track and measure methane emissions, initially from the oil and natural gas sector.

The satellite, dubbed MethaneSAT, would identify global methane emissions from human-made sources, according to the EDF, which is leading the collaborative effort. Work on the mission is underway, with the goal to lift off in late 2020 or early 2021.

The European Space Agency has a satellite that tracks greenhouse gas emissions including methane, but MethaneSAT would have a much higher resolution, said EDF President Fred Krupp.

"There's nothing like this accessible today, and there was no satellite on the drawing board doing anything like this," Krupp said.

EDF has partnered with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to complete the basic science and technical strategies for the mission, with final requirements and a launch schedule set for later this year. The early stage efforts were made possible by support from the Robertson Foundation.

Funding in part also is coming from media organization Technology, Entertainment, Design, aka TED, which hosts an annual conference and posts discussions online for free distribution under a slogan of “ideas worth spreading.”

MethaneSAT is one of seven initiatives in the inaugural round of TED’s The Audacious Project, a $250 million program that is undertaking innovative projects. The project, a successor to the TED Prize, was created because “real change is expensive,” said curator Chris Anderson.

MethaneSAT is a “world-changing” idea “for which a coalition of philanthropists have contributed and helped raise $400 million and counting,” according to EDF. MethaneSAT also extends EDF’s ongoing effort to advance peer-reviewed science focused on oil and gas methane emissions.

“Cutting methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry is the single fastest thing we can do to help put the brakes on climate change right now, even as we continue to attack the carbon dioxide emissions most people are more familiar with,” Krupp said. “By providing reliable, fully transparent data on a worldwide scale, MethaneSAT will help transform a serious climate threat into a crucial opportunity.”

EDF’s Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of climate and energy, said, “Years of data gathered by earth-bound researchers confirm that the oil and gas industry has a serious methane issue. We also know that it’s possible to solve it, and some companies are starting to.

“But the pace today doesn’t match the size of the problem. We need to go much farther, much faster. Data from MethaneSAT will give everyone involved a crucial tool to accelerate the process.”

 MethaneSAT would involve advancing existing technology, in both the design of the instrument on the satellite and the data processing solutions necessary to turn its stream of raw data into “actionable science that oil and gas companies, governments, investors and others can use to shape and evaluate emissions reduction strategies,” EDF said.

EDF has hired Tom Ingersoll to get the project off the ground. He previously was CEO of Skybox Imaging and Universal Space Network, a global satellite ground-station services company. “Advances in space technology have put satellite projects within reach of any organization with the focus and the will,” Ingersoll said. “The potential impact of the MethaneSAT mission has attracted the top talent in the industry to help successfully execute our vision.”

MethaneSAT is to use a wide, 200-kilometer view path at intervals of seven days or less, making it feasible to regularly monitor roughly 50 major oil and gas regions that account for more than 80% of global production, EDF said. MethaneSAT also would be capable of measuring emissions from feedlots, landfills, and other man-made methane sources.

International Energy Agency (IEA) executive director Fatih Birol said IEA analysis “has consistently emphasized that an effective response to the problem of methane emissions requires good data.” MethaneSAT “is a major step forward, and continues EDF’s pioneering work in seeking to tackle these emissions worldwide.”

 As a core part of the project design, EDF plans to make MethaneSAT data available for free to stakeholders and the public, engaging the oil and gas industry, key governments, institutional and individual investors, and regional and global institutions to ensure sustained long-term data analysis and integration of the results into their thinking on emissions mitigation and verification.

 “We believe in the power of cutting-edge science to change the world, producing actionable data that can greatly increase businesses’ and government’s ability to make effective policy decisions,” said EDF’s chief scientist Steven Hamburg. “Transparent data that shows where there are problems and opportunities creates faster and more effective solutions; that’s the goal we’re after.”

EDF has an extensive body of scientific work on methane, including a five-year, $20 million series of studies involving more than 140 researchers examining every link in the U.S. oil and gas supply chain. EDF also has examined the industry’s emissions in Canada and Mexico.

EDF has also engaged with 10 oil and gas companies representing 20% of worldwide production that together formed the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative around methane issues, and worked with governments and industry to catalyze the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, a coalition of eight global producers committed to better reporting to reduce methane emissions.

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