The global crackdown on methane emissions will get a boost this week from a watchdog satellite built to track and publicly reveal the biggest methane polluters in the oil and gas industry.

The satellite, designed by scientists from the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Harvard University, will monitor areas that supply 80 percent of the world’s natural gas. Unlike other methane tracking satellites, it will cover a vast territory while also gathering data detailed enough to spot the sources of emissions.
“Soon, there will be no place to hide,” said Ben Cahill, a climate expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national security think tank. “There’s going to be a lot of public data on methane emissions, so companies will have very strong incentives to figure out the problem and fix it.”

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas released from farms, landfills and leaky fossil fuel equipment, accounts for nearly a third of global warming. Cutting methane emissions is one of the fastest ways to slow climate change, according to climate scientists, because even though it traps 80 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it dissipates after about 12 years.

Most of the world’s oil and gas companies agreed to slash their methane emissions by more than 80 percent by 2030 at last year’s COP28 climate conference, and policymakers are working to hold them to that promise. U.S. regulators proposed steep fines on methane emissions in January and struck a deal with regulators in Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia last year to monitor fossil fuel companies’ methane emissions.

But so far, it’s been hard to track companies’ progress. There are thousands of oil and gas facilities around the world with countless pieces of equipment that can leak or malfunction and release methane, which is odorless and invisible to the naked eye. Companies and regulators can measure some emissions by installing methane detectors or using planes or drones to fly sensors over a facility, but the data is incomplete and hard to compare between companies.

Now, a new generation of satellites, led by MethaneSAT, promises to give a more complete picture of the oil and gas industry’s global methane emissions.


“We’re on the verge of a methane data revolution … in which satellites are having a very prominent role,” said Manfredi Caltagirone, who heads the United Nation’s International Methane Emissions Observatory. “MethaneSAT is exciting in particular … because it’s expected to give us so much better data than what we have now.”


There are already a handful of public and private satellites that monitor methane emissions, but they either zoom in on small areas or take fuzzy, low-resolution surveys of the world. Currently, no satellite has a good enough view of global emissions to make meaningful comparisons between the methane coming from different oil and gas operations.

“Right now people can say a lot about what their emissions are and no one can prove them right or wrong,” said Steve Hamburg, the EDF’s chief scientist.

MethaneSAT is the first of several satellites that aims to make more detailed methane emissions data public. Another satellite, designed by NASA and a greenhouse gas tracking nonprofit called Carbon Mapper, is set to launch this year. Japan will send another emissions tracking satellite into space this year and the European Space Agency plans to launch two more in 2026.

“We’re now zooming in from the continental scale to the scale of individual oil and gas basins, oil and gas fields and, in the case of Carbon Mapper, individual facilities,” said Riley Duran, a research scientist at the University of Arizona who heads Carbon Mapper.


That data can inform government efforts, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Super Emitter Program,” which allows third parties to report big methane plumes to federal regulators. Once the government has vetted the data for accuracy, companies must investigate the causes of reported leaks, share their findings with federal regulators and fix the problem if it violates the Clean Air Act.

“Industry is going to have to explain what happens on their sites … and what are they doing to fix it,” said Carrie Jenks, who heads Harvard’s Environmental & Energy Law Program. Discussions between advocates, regulators and companies could help lower emissions, she said.

The data can also play a role in the natural gas market, where customers are under pressure from regulators, shareholders or their own climate pledges to cut emissions and may choose to buy gas from companies or regions with better track records on plugging methane leaks.

“Acting on methane emissions will be a litmus test of credibility,” said Carlos Pascual, senior vice president for global energy at S&P Global Commodity Insights. “You act on this knowledge, or you pay the cost – either of penalties, or of being increasingly excluded from the market.”

While satellite tracking tools are an important start to tackling methane emissions, they’re not the entire solution, Caltagirone said. “They’re necessary but they’re not sufficient to fix the problem, and that is because data per se do not reduce emissions,” he said. Progress depends on companies doing something with the data.



Since methane doesn’t hang in the atmosphere for centuries, cutting its emissions can quickly pump the brakes on climate change.

The energy industry ranks as the second biggest source of human-caused methane emissions after agriculture, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Oil and gas companies release methane when they vent or flare gas to maintain pressure inside pipes or when fuel accidentally leaks out of faulty equipment. The IEA estimates that three-quarters of these emissions could be avoided, often for free.

The American Petroleum Institute, an organization that represents U.S. oil and gas producers, says the industry is already working to cut methane emissions using data from private sensors, drones, planes and satellites.

“We welcome the proliferation of promising new technologies that allow our industry to detect methane emissions,” said Aaron Padilla, an API spokesman. But, he added, third-party data should be verified by government regulators, and the oil and gas industry will look to the EPA, not outside groups like the EDF, as the authority on tracking and regulating methane emissions.

Cahill, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said plugging methane leaks is in companies’ best interest.

“It’s good for the environment and it’s good for your bottom line,” he said. “Relative to most climate problems, reducing oil and gas methane emissions is about the easiest solution we’re going to find so it’s really imperative for the industry to act fast.”

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