EDF and Google partner to map global methane emissions from space

By this time next year, a new satellite will be detecting how much methane is leaking from oil and gas wells, pumps, pipelines and storage tanks around the world — and companies, governments and nonprofit groups will be able to access all of its data via Google Maps.

That’s one way to describe the partnership announced Wednesday by the Environmental Defense Fund and Google. The two have pledged to combine forces on EDF’s MethaneSat initiative, one of the most ambitious efforts yet to discover and measure emissions of a gas with 80 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

MethaneSat’s first satellite is scheduled to be launched into orbit next month, Steve Hamburg, EDF chief scientist and MethaneSat project lead, explained in a Monday media briefing. Once in orbit, it will circle the globe 15 times a day, providing the “first truly detailed global picture of methane emissions,” he said. “By the end of 2025, we should have a very clear picture on a global scale from all major oil and gas basins around the world.”

That’s vital data for governments and industry players seeking to reduce human-caused methane emissions that are responsible for roughly a quarter of global warming today. The United Nations has called for a 45 percent cut in methane emissions by 2030, which would reduce climate warming by 0.3 degrees Celsius by 2045.

EDF research has found that roughly half of the world’s human-caused methane emissions can be eliminated by 2030, and that half of that reduction could be accomplished at no net cost. Emissions from agriculture, livestock and landfills are expected to be more difficult to mitigate than those from the oil and gas industries, which either vent or flare fossil gas — which is primarily methane — as an unwanted byproduct of oil production, or lose it through leaks.

That makes targeting oil and gas industry methane emissions “the fastest way that we can slow global warming right now,” Hamburg said. While cutting carbon dioxide emissions remains a pressing challenge, “methane dominates what's happening in the near term.”

Action on methane leakage is being promised by industry and governments. At the COP28 U.N. climate talks in December, 50 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies pledged to “virtually eliminate” their methane emissions by 2030, Hamburg noted. The European Union in November passed a law that will place “maximum methane intensity values” on fossil gas imports starting in 2030, putting pressure on global suppliers to reduce leaks if they want to continue selling their products in Europe.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules to impose fines on methane emitters in the oil and gas industry, in keeping with a provision of 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act that penalizes emissions above a certain threshold. And in December, the EPA issued final rules on limiting methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations, including a role for third-party monitors like MethaneSat to report methane “super-emitters” — sources of massive methane leaks — and spur regulatory action.

Accurate and comprehensive measurements are necessary to attain these targets and mandates, Hamburg said. “Achieving real results means that government, civil society and industry need to know how much methane is coming from where, who is responsible for those emissions and how those emissions are changing over time,” he said. “We need the data on a global scale.”

Turning satellite data into regulatory action

That’s where Google will step in, said Yael Maguire, head of the search giant’s Geo Sustainability team. Over the past two years, Google has been working with EDF and MethaneSat to develop a “dynamic methane map that we will make available to the public later this year,” he said during Monday’s briefing.

EDF and Google researchers will use Google’s cloud-computing resources to analyze MethaneSat data to identify leaks and measure their intensity, Maguire said. Google is also adapting its machine-learning and artificial-intelligence capabilities developed for identifying buildings, trees and other landmarks from space to “build a comprehensive map of oil and gas infrastructure around the world based on visible satellite imagery,” he said — a valuable source of information on an industry that can be resistant to providing asset data to regulators.

“Once those maps are lined up, we expect people will be able to have a far better understanding of the types of machinery that contribute most to methane leaks,” Maguire said. These maps and underlying data will be available later this year on MethaneSat’s website and from Google Earth Engine, the company’s environmental-monitoring platform used by researchers to “detect trends and understand correlations between human activity and its environmental impact.”

The work between Google and EDF on MethaneSat is part of a broader set of methane-emissions monitoring efforts by researchers, governments, nonprofits and companies. At the COP28 climate summit, Bloomberg Philanthropies pledged $40 million to support what Hamburg described as an “independent watchdog effort” to track the progress of emissions-reduction pledges that companies in the oil and gas industry made at the event.

MethaneSat will bring new technology to the table, he said. Its sensors can detect methane at concentrations of 2 to 3 parts per billion, down to resolutions of about 100 meters by 400 meters. That’s a much tighter resolution than the methane detection provided by the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel satellite, which nonetheless has been able to detect gigantic methane plumes in oil and gas basins in Central Asia and North Africa in the past three years, he said.

At the same time, MethaneSat can scan 200-kilometer-wide swaths of Earth as it passes overhead, he said. That combination of detail and scope will allow it to “see widespread emissions — those that are across large areas and that other satellites can see — as well as spot problems where other satellites aren't looking.”

This image, taken from a scan using MethaneSat’s sensors in an airplane flying over the Permian Basin, the major oil- and gas-producing region in West Texas and eastern New Mexico, shows the combination of area emissions and point-source emissions that the sensor can capture.

EDF’s work with Google is also enabling the use of MethaneSat data to detect not only the concentration of methane in the atmosphere but also its “flux,” he said — the volumes of methane leaking and their change over time. That’s important information for government regulators seeking to quantify leakage rates to impose penalties or measure industry mitigation efforts, he noted. “We're telling everyone the information they need to take action, as opposed to scientific information that requires further processing.”

Hamburg pointed to other satellite, aerial and ground-based monitoring technologies that can provide more fine-grained data on which parts of oil and gas infrastructure are the source of individual leaks, so that “any individual company or actor in a specific spot can make a repair.”

This granular monitoring is being provided today by Canadian-based company GHGSat, which can focus its sensors to collect data from a point on the Earth as small as roughly 25 meters square. It will be aided by Carbon Mapper, a joint effort of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the California Air Resources Board, private satellite company Planet, and universities and nonprofit partners including RMI and Bloomberg Philanthropies. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Later this year, Carbon Mapper plans to launch into orbit two satellites that will be able to deliver 30-meter-square resolution of point-source methane emissions.

“What Carbon Mapper is focused on is how to discover and isolate super-emitters,” Riley Duren, CEO of the public-private consortium, told Canary Media in a December interview.

Duren compared Carbon Mapper to “a collection of telephoto lenses, zooming in to give you a single view.” MethaneSat, by comparison, is “regional accounting, wall to wall, all the emissions in the Permian Basin or Uinta Basin,” or other oil- and gas-producing regions, he said.

“This has to be a system of systems,” he added. “No one technology will solve this.”

MethaneSat has spent $88 million on the design, construction and launch planning for its first satellite, Hamburg said. The work is funded by a $100 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund, the philanthropic organization launched by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

MethaneSat’s data will be open to analysis from “scientists around the world to validate, to make sure that everybody understands what it can do and what it can't do,” he added.

Maguire noted that the data from Google Earth Engine, including the MethaneSat data it will make available later this year, is “available to researchers, nonprofits and academic institutions for free.” He noted that oil and gas companies will also be able to access the data to inform their own methane leak mitigation efforts. While Google doesn’t have “any information to share at this point” about if or how it might charge companies for that data, “our goal is to make sure that this information is as broadly accessible as possible.”

As for how regulators might make use of MethaneSat data, Hamburg said the organization is “working with the global community of scientists and talking with governments about how to utilize these data to effectively drive the change they're looking to drive.” He declined to provide specifics on what those conversations with governments have entailed. “I wouldn't call them formal talks, but active talks,” he said.