Can satellites help companies reach their sustainability goals?
Elon Musk isn’t the only person to have big plans for innovation in the final frontier of space. In fact, as climate change continues to threaten a 2-degree warming limit for this planet, one organization is going extraterrestrial to try to lock down the most dangerous greenhouse gas emissions we face today — methane.
Methane is an 80-to-100-times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 20-year time frame. Alarmingly, methane emissions are spiking worldwide, in large part due to human activity. A recent NASA study points to methane that is vented, leaked or partially combusted from oil and gas operations as responsible for nearly 70 percent of all new methane emissions. In short, the high levels of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are directly contributing to the most urgent climate problems we face today.
Detection from space
Taking efforts to combat this threat to new heights, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently announced plans to launch a new satellite with high-resolution methane detectors capable of scanning the world for methane leaks and intentional vents down to the installation level. Known as MethaneSAT, EDF notes that the new satellite will "focus only on methane — not a wider spectrum of greenhouse gases measured by other satellites" and that "the 200-plus kilometer satellite view path is large enough not only to quantify known sources, but also to discover and quantify previously unknown sources."
And no surprise, but this satellite will focus on methane emissions from oil and gas operations and will begin working in two or three years. Along with pinpointing where the problems are, the data from EDF’s satellite will be made available to everyone.
Action down on Earth
While MethaneSAT is an innovative and audacious approach to solving the methane threat to a healthy climate, it won’t replace meaningful action here on earth. That’s why, at the same time, EDF also has published a new white paper advocating that oil and gas companies adopt absolute methane reduction targets. The white paper is timely — many oil and gas companies are just now making public commitments to reduce their methane emissions — but as EDF notes, they will need to go further with absolute targets to ensure that we don’t blow past the 2-degree warming target set in the Paris Climate Agreement. Adopting absolute targets designed to abate wasteful methane emissions will help reputable companies prepare for the day when their customers and civil society expect near-zero emissions.
EDF also advocates that oil and gas companies report the methane emissions intensity of the oil and gas that they bring to market. These intensity measurements will play an important step in helping customers better calculate the supply-chain emissions of their products — an increasingly important metric in corporate sustainability. Leading oil and gas operators with low-intensity fuels will attract more customers who prefer to purchase fuels with the lowest greenhouse gas impact.
Differentiating the leaders from the laggards
Both absolute targets and methane emissions intensity measures will be critical differentiators for oil and gas companies in the very near future. With rapidly emerging instruments and verifiable metrics to independently calculate methane emissions, it’s becoming easier to differentiate the leading companies from the laggards on climate impact. In our carbon-constrained world, this new reality will allow policymakers, investors and global markets to support the best practices of leading companies that will improve the oil and gas industry across the board.
What to do about it, however, remains a source of constant tension in the oil and gas community. Rocky Mountain Institute applauds the efforts of EDF to provide a basis that will differentiate the leading oil and gas companies and provide simple measures to improve the performance of the entire industry.
To make this happen, RMI’s own methane-focused program, the Global Race to Zero Methane Emissions Program, encourages all oil and gas operators to adopt absolute methane abatement targets and report methane emissions intensity on their products as defined by EDF. We also urge civil society and industry groups such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol to endorse EDF’s target and intensity-factor approach and continue to seek innovative ways to tackle this pressing climate threat. It is imperative that this industry commit the resources in all forms to address this enormous risk to their business and, more important, our common future.