A View from Above: New Satellite to Monitor Methane Emissions


Aug 22, 2023

Monitoring and Mitigating: The Latest in Emissions Detection

Before you can plug a leaking well you first have to find it. But this can be challenging for many reasons. In the past, developers sometimes didn’t thoroughly document well locations and in some cases paperwork on old wells can get lost when companies are bought and sold or go bankrupt. Organizations have tried tracking down methane leaks using airborne sensors and observers on the ground, but these methods are slow and have limited reach.

To help solve this problem, Ball Aerospace is putting the finishing touches on a new methane-monitoring satellite in its Boulder, Colorado, facility. The satellite, designed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and known as MethaneSAT will collect methane emissions data around the world. This data will then be made freely available to the public online within days of collection.

Find and Plug: Minimizing Methane

Oil and gas companies are taking steps to find and plug abandoned wells and are required to monitor, plug and capture methane leaks at new drilling sites. Having access to timely methane emissions data would be valuable for state and federal agencies looking to locate and plug abandoned wells. The data would also be useful for oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil that have committed to drastically reduce methane emissions over the next several years.

Bird’s Eye View: All About MethaneSAT

MethaneSAT is scheduled for launch in early 2024 and is currently undergoing testing to ensure it will work as designed in the harsh conditions of space. The satellite will orbit about 325 miles (525 km) above Earth’s surface and scan the ground with a pair of infrared cameras that can detect methane. MethaneSAT will be able to measure methane emissions in areas of about 1 square km and collect data globally about every three or four days.

Readings from MethaneSAT’s instruments will be analyzed along with data on wind and other atmospheric conditions to give an accurate view of cumulative emissions in wide areas and individual point sources of methane. This data will then be posted on a cloud-based platform and available for free to the public. Additionally, MethaneSAT will share results with the United Nation’s International Methane Emissions Observatory.

MethaneSAT is the product of a joint effort between EDF, Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The $90 million satellite was financed through philanthropic donations and a grant from the Bezos Earth Fund.

Money Talks: Financial Incentives to Plug Leaks

Having timely data on methane emissions will help oil and gas companies mitigate leaking abandoned wells as well as fix leaks in pipelines and other infrastructure and capture methane from active wells. This would not only help companies comply with regulations, it could improve their bottom line. Methane is a valuable product used to generate electricity and heat homes, so oil and gas companies have a financial interest in not letting it float away.

Eyes on the Problem: Finding and Sharing Emissions Data

Once launched, MethaneSAT will join other satellites like TROPOMI that measure methane emissions on different scales. The precise measurements that MethaneSAT will be able to provide, and the timely and freely available data the project will publish, will be beneficial for many different fields. Being able to see where methane is coming from would make it easier to find and plug abandoned wells, something that has proven to be tricky so far.

With over 130,000 documented orphan wells and counting it is imperative that funds be directed to plugging wells with the highest leak rate to maximize the impact of remediation efforts. Unfortunately, leaking wells are typically the most difficult to plug as cement and other high viscosity sealants are unable to travel through the narrow leakage pathways conveying methane to surface. Fortunately, BioSqueeze provides a solution to this issue. BioSqueeze utilizes a low-viscosity fluid system capable of penetrating cracks a fraction of the width of a human hair, where it forms limestone to permanently sequester gas.

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