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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

How Tip and Cue Strategies Can Help Mitigate Unnecessary Methane Emissions

"With Spire’s satellites, GHGSat can focus its efforts on monitoring rather than satellite manufacturing, and with Spires API to collect, receive, and process data, it paves the way for more efficient and effective methane leak detection and site-specific monitoring."

It’s well-known that methane emissions are the second-leading GHG contributor to climate change behind carbon dioxide, and methane emissions come from numerous natural and human-based sources. According to data from the EPA, anthropogenic methane emissions account for approximately 20% of GHG emissions globally, coming from sources like landfills, agriculture systems, coal mining, and combustion.

However, one of the most significant contributors to methane emissions in the US and abroad is oil & gas operations, and approximately 40% of human-caused methane emissions come from seemingly preventable sources… leakage.

While we should be concerned about all aspects and sources of methane emissions, it would make sense to focus first on preventable sources like leakage. After all, what good do emissions regulations do if we can't manage them on the back end?

The Challenge: Monitoring Global Methane Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations

One of the biggest problems with assessing methane emissions from oil and gas operations isn't the emissions lost at the source through extraction, refinement, flaring, etc. Actually, those emissions are somewhat predictable and can be measured with technology and emissions instruments - many of which are mandatory for sustainability and emissions reporting regulations.

Instead, one of the primary challenges in assessing methane emissions from these operations is leakage. Representatives from the oil and gas industry have stated that the occurrence of leaks is less than 1%. However, independent research and industry data refute that statement, and in many cases, methane leak occurrences are far more common - up to 5 times the reported amount in some locations at certain times.

Methane leaks often go unnoticed for some time before the problem is identified, and when a facility leaks methane at high rates, it's considered a “super-emitter.” Leaks from super-emitters are so heavy that a small number of sites with leaks are causing disproportionate methane emissions globally - making it crucial to identify the sources and mitigate the problem promptly.

TROPOMI: A current (yet lacking) strategy for monitoring methane emissions from space

It’s been over 5 years since the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) - the monitoring instrument on board the Copernicus Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite - has been monitoring methane emissions from orbital space, providing near-global coverage of methane gas emissions to pinpoint methane super-emitters.

The system makes millions of observations daily and is one of the world's most expansive methane emission detection systems. However, since the system takes millions of observations daily and the methane emission data is so complex, it becomes nearly impossible for humans to verify the data manually.

Instead, the operating team uses a ‘tip-and-cue’ approach for plume source identification.

When a methane plume is detected with AI and ML algorithms, and the source cannot be identified with certainty using the data collected from TROPOMI, a high-resolution satellite is tasked with follow-up imaging. Typically, these observations come from GHGSat, PRISMA, and Sentinel-2 satellites, which can identify facility-level emissions and help locate the exact sources of super-emitters. Once data and imagery are collected from these high-res sensors, human analyses can clear up doubts about source emissions and execute mitigation protocols at identified super-emitters or other sources.

In 2021, the TROPOMI instruments aboard the Sentinel-5 P satellite identified a potentially severe methane leak in Madrid, Spain. However, as described above, the instruments did not have the resolution capabilities needed to identify the source, so GHGSat was tasked with the follow-up imaging to try and detect the methane emissions source.

After deployment, the GHGSat imagery showed a landfill leak about a dozen miles from the city center - showing just how valuable tip-and-cue strategies can be for identifying methane leaks and their sources from space. While this scenario involved a methane leak from a landfill, it’s a perfect example of how methane leaks could be identified at other sites - including those operating for oil and gas.

New Opportunities and Solutions: A Spire Global and GHGSat Partnership

Last year, Spire Global - a leading global provider of space-based data, analytics, and services - announced a new partnership with GHGSat to help monitor GHG emissions from space. GHGSat is the world’s leading service for high-resolution methane monitoring from space and plans to expand its capabilities this year with the Spire partnership.

Spire will launch at least 3 new satellites in 2023 with GHGSat payloads, which will help identify potential methane leaks and emissions from sources like oil and gas, coal mining, waste management, and agricultural operations. The leak detection service will quantify emissions at the source, which will help authorities develop actionable and effective strategies to mitigate the emissions and help companies meet their environmental and emissions targets.

Joel Spark, general manager of Space Services at Spire, said in a statement, “Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions to help fight climate change is a perfect example of how data from space can provide insights into the biggest challenges facing humanity." He went on to say, “We’re proud that GHGSat chose to leverage Spire’s proven space platform, end-to-end manufacturing facility, global ground station network, and mission operations system to efficiently scale its constellation. Taking the complexity out of space so that great companies like GHGSat can focus on their core mission and solve global problems is exactly why we developed our Space Services offering.”

With Spire’s satellites, GHGSat can focus its efforts on monitoring emissions rather than satellite manufacturing, and with Spires API to collect, receive, and process data, it paves the way for more efficient and effective methane leak detection and site-specific monitoring.

In the future, when companies and services locate methane emissions from space or need facility-level emissions data but don’t have the high-resolution capabilities needed, the Spire/GHGSat satellites could be deployed in a ‘tip-and-cue’ manner - providing customers with a high level of certainty regarding methane leaks and emissions sources.

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