The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Harvard University launched the MethaneSAT, a satellite to measure and reduce Earth’s methane emissions, into space on March 3.

The project’s primary target: oil and gas operators.

In a March 1 press briefing from the EDF and Harvard, Steven Hamburg, project lead for MethaneSAT and chief scientist at EDF, said methane is responsible for about 30% of global warming, but he sees the advantage of methane being a “short-lived” climate pollutant.

“If we can reduce the methane from human sources, we can rapidly reduce the rate of increase in the warming,” Hamburg said. “We can’t stop it without [addressing] CO2, but we can dramatically reduce the rate of increase over the next couple of decades by addressing methane and doing it aggressively.”

Hamburg said the satellite will attempt to answer three key questions: The extent of emissions; where they’re located; and how they are changing over time.

The partnership is initially focused on the oil and gas industry “because it is responsible for a large proportion of emissions,” Hamburg said. He added that the industry has proven it knows how to reduce those emissions, citing that there are some areas that aren’t releasing large emissions and that there is technology available to reduce them.

MethaneSAT uses two spectrometers that can take snapshots along spatial points spanning 200 km wide, according to Steven Wofsy, MethaneSAT’s project lead. Wofsy is also an atmospheric and environmental science professor at Harvard University.

During the briefing, Wofsy shared an image of what he said to be the Delaware Basin emitting different intensities of methane into the atmosphere.

(Source: Environmental Defense Fund/ Harvard University’s MethaneSAT presentation)

Wofsy showed an image of a blue rectangular shape with long yellow and red streaks. Those streaks depict “plumes of emissions” from sources currently emitting methane into the atmosphere.

“You'll also see large areas that are of higher concentrations and the surrounding areas representing more diffuse sources that are putting methane into the atmosphere,” he said.

Oil and gas industry groups beg to differ. Jennifer Pett Marsteller, Independent Petroleum Association of America senior director of public affairs and communications, told Hart Energy satellite imagery can be misleading. While monitoring methane is vital to the emissions reduction process, drawing specific conclusions is tricky because data and technology can be limited.

“Satellites are useful tools for visualizing emissions trends as they show broad snapshots of a region. It should not be used to assign company or site-specific responsibility, and historically, analyses that try to do so have proven inaccurate and mischaracterized emissions sources,” Marsteller said.

In November 2023, the IPAA’s Energy In Depth released an analysis of the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program showing the volume of methane emissions across top U.S. oil and natural gas basins had a “significant” drop between 2018 and 2022.

The analysis found that across the basins examined:

  • The Permian’s emissions decreased by 32%;
  • The Anadarko dropped by 44%;
  • The Williston, 30%;
  • The San Juan, 40%;
  • The Appalachian, 37%;
  • The Gulf Coast, 18%; and
  • The Arkoma, 77%.

Sticking to commitment

 But MethaneSAT project leads argue that the satellite is “reasonably well-received” considering the industry is already using GHG satellites for their own operation inspections, said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy transition for the EDF.

“I think the only companies that worry are the companies that know that they’ve got work to do,” Brownstein said.

The Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO) says it has long been aware of the methane satellite tracking efforts, and the industry group points to the industry’s efforts in emissions reductions.

“We are also working on an effort to create some economy of scale for producers in the Permian Basin to access and utilize satellite technology to reduce emissions in partnership with a company called Satelytics,” said TIPRO President Ed Longanecker.

Longanecker says the consortium would allow more companies to collaboratively monitor overlapping oil and gas assets and pipeline infrastructure using satellite data parsed by AI-based analytics.

Brownstein and Hamburg recognized other sources impacting the rate of global warming.

Methane is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural ga, and oil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “Methane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices, land use and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills,” according to EPA’s website.

However, Brownstein and Hamburg said they can only collect a limited amount of precise data, and that’s mainly why the project is prioritizing the oil and gas industry in the search for mitigating methane’s immediate impact on climate.

At COP28 in December, dozens of U.S. and international E&Ps, responsible for 40% of the global oil and gas supply, committed to eliminating their Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2050, according the Energy Transitions Commission. The companies have also set a goal to achieve near zero methane emissions by 2030, Hamburg said.

“There are active efforts underway by us and others to expand the number of companies that have made that commitment,” Hamburg said. “But here, MethaneSAT data will be used to assess just how well those companies are progressing in terms of meeting their commitments.”

MethaneSAT is a nonprofit subsidiary of EDF funded by EDF donors and the New Zealand Space Agency, project partner on MethaneSAT. Other donors include Bezos Earth Fund, Arnold Ventures, the TED Audacious Project and the Robertson Foundation.