How Methane Emissions May Be Tracked Via Satellite in Space

A new agreement between a national environmentalist group and a spacecraft manufacturer involves a partnership that will see the design of a sensing instrument slated to be deployed in space by 2022.

by Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus / October 9, 2019
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(TNS) — Methane emissions from oil and gas operations could be tracked from outer space, after a national environmentalist group signed a deal with a spacecraft manufacturer to develop a satellite to monitor the gas across the globe.

MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of the Environmental Defense Fund, signed an agreement with Ball Aerospace to partner in the design of the sensing instrument to be deployed into space by 2022.

The agreement, announced on Sept. 23 followed a 10-month competitive bidding process, read a news release from MethaneSAT LLC.

The project was intended to “protect” the Earth from climate change, read the release, as methane from man-made sources was allegedly responsible for at least 25 percent of global warming.

To that end, MethaneSAT will provide oil and gas companies and countries data to manage leaks and other releases in hopes of reducing emissions.

And that data will be available to the public for free.

“This is a sophisticated mission with a truly unique purpose, to reduce emissions faster by making them visible to everyone,” said Steven Hamburg, MethaneSAT co-lead.

“MethaneSAT compliments existing satellites, bringing even greater capability to regularly identify and quantify methane sources almost anywhere on the planet.”

He said the satellite was designed and engineered over the last year, and the agreement was a major step toward its ultimate launch into space.

“With nearly a year’s worth of design and engineering work leading up to this agreement now in place, MethaneSAT is taking a giant leap toward launch day,” Hamburg said.

The mission will initially focus on the oil and gas industry which releases up to 75 million metric tons of methane each year, the release read.

Reducing such emissions from oil and gas by 45 percent by 2025, read the release, would have the same benefit in 20 years as shutting down a third of the world’s coal-fired power plants.

How does it work?

MethaneSAT will map methane emissions across large areas and measure them at specific spots.

Existing satellites can only do one or the other, the release read.

A spectrometer built by Ball Aerospace was designed to measure a narrow part of the shortwave infrared spectrum where light is absorbed by methane, detecting concentrations as low as two parts per billion.

High spatial resolution and a 200-kilometer view span was intended to allow the satellite to track smaller emissions sources across large areas.

The team will also apply inverse modelling of methane concentration patterns, using factors such as wind and atmospheric conditions to find the location and quantity of large and small emission sources.

Makenzie Lystrup, vice president and general manager of civil space at Ball Aerospace said the project would be able to capture a broad scope of pollution sources.

“We are excited to bring together our innovation and extensive heritage in building, designing and calibrating instruments in order to make MethaneSAT a success,” he said.

“Working with MethaneSAT to enable scientists to study an ever-changing planet is very much in line with our history in earth observation and commitment to sustainability, whether that is high-resolution imaging, weather or ozone and pollution monitoring – Ball is all about science at any scale.”

Ball Aerospace will build the MethaneSAT instrument and its two spectrometers.

The company will also develop the satellite’s flight integration and test, along with launch support and other services.

A team of scientists were assembled to work on the project, with experts from Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory.

“These are the most seasoned leaders you could bring to a complex endeavor like this one,” said Tom Ingersoll, MethaneSAT project co-lead.

“They’ve blazed trails and broken ground, and they know how leading-edge technological ventures work. It’s exactly the team we want helping guide this program.”

How could it help New Mexico?

Methane emissions from oil and gas operators primarily occur through combustion or flaring, or a non-combustive release known as venting,

A study from Rystad Energy, an independent energy research company, said operators in the Permian Basin in southeast New Mexico and West Texas averages up to 650 million cubic feet of vented or flared gas per day.

In New Mexico, an average of about 85 percent of the gas is flared with the other 15 percent vented into the atmosphere.

But recently the data showed venting dropped to about 8 percent.

And with the construction of new natural gas pipelines in the region, the study suggested the problem could be further alleviated.

Artem Abramov, head of shale research at Rystad Energy said the increase in new wells caused an increase in flaring, as the practice is common in the first two weeks following a well completion to regulate the pressure as excess gas is brought to the surface during the initial extraction.

“It should be noted that the significant number of new well connections in the second half of 2019 might result in a sustained high flaring level, because from an operational perspective, associated gas flaring is normal in the first two weeks following an oil well completion,” Abramov said.

Despite the slight decline, venting and flaring in the Permian Basin remained at an all-time high, records show, with continual growth from about 100 million cubic feet per day in the first quarter of 2013, to about 300 million cfpd in the second quarter of 2015, up to more than 600 million cubic feet at least throughout 2019.

To address the problem, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham created a Climate Change Task Force within her administration via a January executive order to begin studying solutions for the industry and local communities.

“Today marks an important shift in direction on climate policy in New Mexico,” she said upon signing the order.

“We know all too well states cannot rely on the federal government right now to act responsibly and take the bold action scientists have made clear is needed to prevent calamitous climate change fallout in our lifetimes.

“It’s up to us.”

©2019 the Carlsbad Current-Argus (Carlsbad, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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