Have the environmentalists placed a narc in the sky to methane shame oil and gas operators? Yes, they have, but there’s more to it than that.

On March 4, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket streaked toward the heavens carrying MethaneSAT, a refrigerator-sized satellite meant to monitor methane emissions in oil and gas basins. The state-of-the-art tracker can capture enough emissions information to satisfy the collective data cravings of every nerd you’ve ever known.

The satellite was developed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a research team at Harvard University, Ball Aerospace and others. Google will host mission analytics on its cloud and make data available to the public on its Google Earth Engine. Other satellites track greenhouse gases, including the European Space Agency’s TROPOMI and GHGSat, a private company, but MethaneSAT is the only one built exclusively for methane.

Not everyone is thrilled about the prospect of an environmentalist organization’s satellite turning its sensors toward a basin’s operations and sharing what it knows with the world. And, to be fair, methane outing is part of the mission.

“I’m sure many people think that this is a tool that could be used to name and shame companies who are poor emissions performers, and that’s true,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president, energy transition for EDF during a press event prior to the launch. “But I like to think of it as a tool that can help document progress that leading companies are making in reducing their emissions.”

API has already indicated a preference for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to handle that task, rather than relying on third-party data. EPA’s new methane regulations that went into effect on March 8 allow third-party input and EDF would be allowed to apply for certification for MethaneSAT.    

Using its own methane detection resources, the oil and gas industry cut average emissions intensity by almost 66% across all seven major onshore producing regions from 2011 to 2021, API says. At issue, though, is the accuracy of the data underpinning those numbers. Some of that doubt stems from the methods used to collect it.

MethaneSAT Data Rendering
MethaneSAT will create heat maps that are 200 km x 200 km, focusing on oil and gas basins. (Source: MethaneSAT)

Scientists typically measure methane emissions using planes or cars, which limited them to a specific area at a specific time. The trouble with this method is that methane emissions tend to migrate, so a snapshot at one point in time would not look the same as a snapshot a few days later, making it difficult to determine where are the emissions were, how much methane was escaping into the atmosphere, and the change over time.

“We needed to really have some way of looking constantly to take the snapshots of what was happening and turn them into a motion picture, and the only way we could do that effectively was from space,” said Steven Wofsy, MethaneSAT’s lead scientist and professor of atmospheric and environmental science at Harvard.

EDF’s surveys, both in the U.S. and in other global regions, show methane emissions are about 60% higher than what has been reported to the EPA and other regulatory agencies. The industry can’t tackle the problem of methane emissions without complete data on the extent of the problem, and data is not necessarily readily available. There has been a focus on “super emitters,” or very large sources of emissions that are often attributed to catastrophic equipment failure. EDF’s MethaneAIR flyovers have shown that a significant chunk of those emissions—perhaps more than half—derive from diffuse sources.

Larger oil and gas companies may be able to handle the expense of hiring a firm to fly over their operations with a LIDAR device to measure emissions, but many smaller producers would be hard-pressed to do so, especially when sudden drops in the price of WTI cut into margins. Access to MethaneSAT’s data, which will likely become publicly available early in 2025, will be a cost-saver in pinpointing trouble spots.

It’s a new world, and not just because a rocket booster can zoom into space and return upright to its launch pad. Investors may return to the oil and gas space, but a company identified as a methane emitter that is unwilling to address the problem will have a tough time attracting funds.

Emission control is simply a part of doing business. And if you think you can hide from that reality, then just look up in the sky.