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This environmental group is launching its own satellite to learn more about greenhouse gas leaks

A rendering by the Environmental Defense Fund of a methane-detecting satellite. (EDF)

When the Environmental Defense Fund told commercial space guru Tom Ingersoll that it wanted to launch a satellite to measure methane from oil and gas operations, he says his reaction was “Whoa! You guys want to do what?”

Yet that’s what the EDF is doing. It is well on its way toward raising about $40 million. It has tapped into the work of Harvard University researchers to fine tune sensors. And it has reached out to Ingersoll and others in the commercial space business to create a device that will be able to measure methane emissions on a 125-mile wide swath with pixel resolution of less than  five-eighths of a mile.

EDF will also get support from TED Talks, which hopes to spur fundraising for a variety of causes through its “Audacious Project.”

The satellite will enable EDF to more accurately measure methane emissions, which account for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. The results could be sobering. In February, EDF estimated methane emissions from Pennsylvania’s shale oil and gas sites may be more than five times higher than what oil and gas companies reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The EDF analysis estimates Pennsylvania’s oil and gas operators emit more than 520,000 tons of methane a year, primarily from leaky, outdated and malfunctioning equipment.

This wasted gas causes the same near-term climate pollution as 11 coal-fired power plants and results in nearly $68 million worth of wasted energy resources, the environmental group said.

In Pennsylvania, EDF relied on peer-reviewed scientific research conducted at the state’s oil and gas sites. The state’s published methane inventory is based on data reported by operating companies. They in turn estimate emissions on the assumption that their equipment is working properly rather than how it works in reality.

The new satellite “would be the first capable of monitoring worldwide all oil and gas facilities with precision,” Fred Krupp, president of EDF, said in an interview. “It’s a very compact satellite designed to do one thing way better than anyone’s done it.”

The satellite will produce a global snapshot of 80 percent of the globe every seven days and will detect methane in concentrations of as little as two parts per billion. Ingersoll said that the satellite would use infrared spectrometers and track methane’s signature wavelengths and reflection of small packets of light, or photons.

The team of Harvard researchers including professor of atmospheric and environmental science Steven C. Wofsy has been doing similar work about the large increase in U.S. methane emissions during the past decade using existing satellite data and surface observations.

The new data will help compare actual emissions and the pledges made by companies or countries in line with the Paris agreement. While there is no Paris target, methane reductions are part of countries’ individual implementation plans.

“Twenty-five percent of the warming that the planet is experiencing right now is from man-made methane emissions, and the oil and gas industry is a significant source of those emissions,” EDF Senior Vice President Mark Brownstein said. “Reducing those emissions can have a material impact on slowing the rate of warming now.”

The Trump EPA has been seeking to roll back rules issued in 2016 that would limit methane emissions. In 2016, President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sectors by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.

When burned in power plants, natural gas, which is made up almost entirely of methane, releases half as much greenhouse gas as coal.

But those advantages can be offset by leaks of methane into the air because methane is a short-lived but extremely potent greenhouse gas. Though half of it vanishes in 8.3 years, EDF says it is still 84 times as powerful as carbon dioxide over 20 years. The EPA uses a broader time frame and says methane’s global warming effect is 28 to 36 times that of carbon dioxide over the course of a century.

In recent years, EDF has been conducting 16 studies with industry and academics to produce an authoritative estimate of leaks all along the natural gas supply chain.

Natural gas leaks come under scrutiny, raise questions on climate impact

“There tends to be an undercounting of pieces of equipment in the field,” Brownstein said. “Certain source categories not being counted at all, such as storage tanks in the Barnett shale field. The emission factors don’t take into consideration that a significant part of emissions comes from malfunctions and failures.”

He added that “what we now know is that with technology advancing, there are ways to collect this data — actual data in the field — and be able to do it more frequently than older measurements allowed for.”

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