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satellites to track methane


On the screen is a satellite photo. The landscape in ocher tones is hardly recognizable. Antoine Benoit, engineer at Kayrros, deciphers the image: we are in the middle of Russia, in 2019. And there is a ” anomaly “. Large yellow pixels form a trail over several tens of kilometers. The first hypothesis is that it would be massive emissions of methane. This greenhouse gas, the second most emitted behind carbon dioxide (CO2), has a warming power eighty times more powerful, over a period of twenty years.

→ INVESTIGATION. From ground to space, tracking methane emissions

How did this super-pollutant end up there? Methane emissions have several potential sources. About a third of emissions of human origin are linked to fossil fuels: methane being one of the main components of natural gas, it is released during its extraction, but also at the level of oil and coal deposits. It is then either released directly into the atmosphere, or burned (these are the famous flares visible near oil wells), or – and this is where emissions are avoided – recovered to be resold or reinjected into the deposit. Part of these methane emissions can also be linked to leaks during transport.

New generation of satellites

Back to our satellite photo. Antoine Benoit superimposes it on a map of global energy infrastructure, which reveals that the emissions occurred near a pipeline. Several technical checks – the direction of the wind, for example – confirm that a massive leak of methane at this location, linked to energy infrastructures, is highly probable.

→ DEBATE. Can imported methane emissions be regulated?

A few years earlier, the exercise would have been almost impossible. “These detections are enabled both by a new generation of satellites and computing capabilities of computers that we did not have before,” says Antoine Rostand, one of the founders of Kayrros. This French company is based on data from the Sentinel 5P satellite, launched by the European Space Agency in 2017. It circles the Earth every day. Unlike traditional surveillance tools (planes, drones, infrared cameras) which cannot be used every day, surveillance from space makes it possible to identify possible leaks on a daily basis. With a limit: they can only detect massive leaks.

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What use? “Our clients may be owners of oil or gas fields, but who do not operate on site, explains Antoine Rostand. They may also be investors seeking to measure the carbon footprint or the risks associated with their portfolio. »

→ READ. Fuels, waste, livestock… How to reduce methane emissions

Kayrros is not the only company to position itself in this niche. The Canadian company GHGSat has launched its own constellation of satellites and counts oil and gas giants among its customers: Chevron, Shell, Total and Exxon. In 2023, the American environmental NGO Environmental Defense Fund will launch its own high-resolution satellite to measure even more precisely the methane emissions released into the atmosphere.

This type of data provides valuable lessons. In February, a study by researchers from CNRS, CEA and Kayrros revealed 1,200 episodes of “super-emissions” linked to the oil and gas sector. A large part comes from six countries: Turkmenistan (for a third), Russia, United States, Iran, Kazakhstan and Algeria. These unreported leaks alone would have accounted for between 8% and 12% of global methane emissions between 2019 and 2020. A 2022 IEA study, also based on satellite data, concluded that 70% of emissions of the energy sector were underestimated.

Rapid reduction potential

“These data are mainly used by researchers, but there is a growing interest from companies, analyzes Jasmin Cooper, researcher at Imperial Research College, London. Especially since it becomes more difficult for them to hide these possible methane emissions. » In a context of high gas prices, they can also find an economic interest in it: between 2017 and 2021, according to the IEA, 45% of methane emissions in the energy sector could have been avoided without generating additional costs. , taking into account the value of the recovered gas. Because losses are also – for companies – losses of resources.

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“The most difficult thing is to detect leaks: once detected, they are often inexpensive to eliminate”, adds Jonathan Banks, in charge of methane for the American environmental NGO Clean Air Task Force.

Technical obstacles

So are satellites a miracle solution? “They are limited by technical obstacles: resolution, but also cloud cover or winds, which prevent certain emissions from being detected, shade Jasmine Cooper. This is why the detection solution is not unique, but must be combined with other ground measurements. » Even if their resolution gets finer, it is likely that they will never be able to spot the smallest leaks that require regular monitoring.

However, few countries have established demanding monitoring standards. In the United States, the first regulation was only put in place in 2014, in the state of Colorado. The European Union first presented its proposal for a regulation on the subject in December 2021.

“What matters is always how governments put in place and enforce regulations, notes Lena Höglund-Isaksson, researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. If regulations do not force companies to reduce their emissions, the technologies will be of little use. “Whatever the solutions implemented, it must be remembered that the solution to be adopted remains the exit from fossil fuels”, she concludes.


Timeline of growing political attention

In November 2021, pushed by the United States and the European Union, a hundred countries committed to reducing their methane emissions by 30% by 2030, compared to 2020.

At the same time, the United States presented for the first time a text proposing to regulate on its territory, at the federal level, the emissions of methane, in particular in the energy sector.

In December 2021, the European Commission in turn made a proposal for a regulation, targeting the energy sector. It would oblige operators to monitor their installations every three months, and to repair any leaks within five days. The Commission also wants to ban certain polluting practices by producers, such as routine flaring.

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