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IEEE Spectrum

Satellites Spot Carbon Pollution From Oil and Gas Wells

Berkeley, California banned the installation of natural gas pipes to new residential construction projects last month. The city is committed to slashing its carbon footprint, and natural gas is a carbon double-whammy: when burned, it releases carbon dioxide and, when leaked, its main ingredient, methane, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Several dozen California cities appear set to follow Berkeley’s lead. Which helps explain why the U.S. government’s plan to scrap mandatory monitoring for methane leaks is getting few cheers from the oil and gas industry. Paying attention to gas leaks is critical to defending their product’s social license.

Those leaks, meanwhile, may soon have nowhere to hide thanks to a growing wave of private, methane-detecting satellites being placed in orbit. Canada’s GHGSat led the charge in 2016 with its carbon-tracking Claire microsatellite, and the company now has a second-generation microsat ready to launch. Several more methane-detecting satellites are coming, including one from the Environmental Defense Fund. If gas producers don’t find and squelch their own pollution, this proliferation of remote observers will make it increasingly likely that others will shine a spotlight on it.

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