Satellite to ‘name and shame’ worst oil and gas methane polluters

Leaks are driving 30% of the climate crisis and MethaneSat will provide the first near-comprehensive global view

A washing-machine-sized satellite is to “name and shame” the worst methane polluters in the oil and gas industry.

MethaneSat is scheduled to launch from California onboard a SpaceX rocket on Monday at 2pm local time (22:00 GMT). It will provide the first near-comprehensive global view of leaks of the potent greenhouse gas from the oil and gas sector, and all of the data will be made public. It will provide high-resolution data over wider areas than existing satellites.

Methane, also called natural gas, is responsible for 30% of the global heating driving the climate crisis. Leaks from the fossil fuel industry are a major source of human-caused emissions and stemming these is the fastest single way to curb temperature rises.

MethaneSat was developed by the Environmental Defense Fund, a US NGO, in partnership with the New Zealand Space Agency and cost $88m to build and launch. Earlier EDF measurements from planes show methane emissions were 60% higher than calculated estimates published by US authorities and elsewhere.

More than 150 countries have signed a global methane pledge to cut their emissions of the gas by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Some oil and gas companies have made similar pledges, and new regulations to limit methane leaks are being worked on in the US, EU, Japan and South Korea.

The EDF’s senior vice-president, Mark Brownstein, said: “MethaneSat is a tool for accountability . I’m sure many people think this could be used to name and shame companies who are poor emissions performers, and that’s true. But [it] can [also] help document progress that leading companies are making in reducing their emissions.”

The oil and gas industry knows how to stop leaks and the cost of doing so is usually very modest, said Steven Hamburg, the EDF’s chief scientist and MethaneSat project leader: “Some call it low hanging fruit. I like to call it fruit lying on the ground.”

Kelly Levin, the chief of science at the Bezos Earth Fund, which helped to fund the project, said: “From the sky, MethaneSat can see what others can’t, helping good actors and holding bad actors accountable.”

The Guardian revealed more than 1,000 methane “super-emitter” sites in March last year. The worst single leak was spewing the gas out at a rate equivalent to 67m running cars. It also revealed “mind-boggling” methane leaks from Turkmenistan, prompting the government to pledge action. These revelations were based on lower-resolution data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5P satellite.

MethaneSat’s instrument has a resolution of about 140 metres, compared with Sentinel 5P’s of about six kilometres (3.7 miles), enabling it to monitor the smaller leaks that combine to make a large part of the total. MethaneSat will circle the Earth 15 times a day at an altitude of 590km and collect data in a 200km swathe. “For the first time, we will have empirical data for effectively the entire oil and gas production system globally,” said Hamburg.

The first results after the commissioning process are expected at the start of the summer with the full flow of data being available from early 2025. Nasa’s Emit mission also collects high-resolution data, but with lower precision methane measurements than MethaneSat, which can detect changes as small as three parts per billion. Methane data from the commercial GHGSat is not freely available.

Experts said they expected MethaneSat to be the gold standard for methane measurements. It is expected to contribute to the UN’s international methane emissions observatory, which will collate and publish data on leaks.

Hamburg said MethaneSat could also be used in the future to track methane from coalmines, landfills and farming, which are the other main sources of human-caused emissions. The Guardian revealed in February that there had been more than 1,000 huge methane leaks from waste dumps since 2019.

Cover photo: MethaneSat is scheduled to launch from California aboard a SpaceX rocket on Monday. Photograph: 2024 Ball Aerospace/BAE Systems