The Growing Misuse of Satellite Monitoring Data
The oil and natural gas industry is investing heavily in new and innovative technologies to detect methane leaks faster and significantly reduce emissions from operations – and they’re partnering with other companies, environmental groups, universities and regulators to come up with the best, most effective solutions.
Collectively, these varied methods of data collection and monitoring have the potential to give a clearer, more accurate picture of U.S. emissions, and in turn, help companies identify and fix issues faster. But each individual technology has its own strengths and limitations.
Continuous monitoring on the ground, for instance, can show facility-level emissions in real time, but it may not necessarily be representative of similar facilities in the region. On the opposite side of the spectrum, satellite imaging gives a broad view of methane across a region but isn’t yet able to pinpoint facility-level sources with reliable accuracy.
And yet there’s a growing trend of using satellite data to claim that individual companies or facilities are releasing methane at higher levels than what’s been reported. For instance, Reuters recently reported on the use of satellite data to not only attribute methane emissions to specific companies, but also benchmark them based on these findings.
There’s a couple things to keep in mind when reading analyses and studies making these claims:
Fact #1. There are currently limitations to what satellite monitoring can accurately attribute.
Notably, a question on attribution is the only question listed on the FAQ page for Geofinancial Analytics’ MethaneScan project (what Reuters reported on). The company explains that there are varying levels of attribution, the most detailed being pinpoint attribution which can identify the exact source of a leak or specific operators, and sometimes identify the time, duration and amount of emissions. As Geofinancial Analytics explains:
“This kind of pinpoint attribution is clearly very important, particularly to the people who need to stop or fix the leak.”
Ultimately pinpointing a source, duration and amount of emissions is the goal for everyone, from the operator to the many scientists studying global emissions. But that’s not the level of attribution Geofinancial Analytics’ equipment operates at:
“But lower level attribution is also valuable — and this is the level where Geofinancial Analytics starts its attribution activities. This mid-scale attribution does not reveal precise leaks, but it can detect elevated concentrations of methane in the atmosphere and associate those concentration anomalies with operators on the ground. At the mid-level, concentration anomalies can occur over properties owned or operated by several corporations.” (emphasis added)
According to the company, its satellite monitoring “can narrow the neighborhood and narrow the likely emission sources.” Translated: they can make an educated guess on which companies are in the region, and then they build a company-wide assessment based on the sites in the area to compare to reported emissions data.
Because pinpoint attribution isn’t yet there for satellite monitoring, this method is not exact and the limitations have potential for error. This was pointed out in company responses within the article where spokespeople expressed concern over assumptions, ignoring other potential emissions sources and the close proximity of various operators’ operations – all things that could lead to inaccurately attributing the source of methane emissions.
Fact #2. Methane emissions detection technology is improving and companies are investing heavily in it.
Unfortunately, the Reuters article makes no mention of the tremendous technological progress the industry has made in recent years to address methane leaks. But that’s not to say that there isn’t potential for detection methods to improve. As one company spokesperson told Reuters:
“Over time, their models and analysis have the potential to improve as additional information becomes available to them.”
The oil and natural gas industry, including the companies named in the article, are at the forefront of efforts to improve data and data collection. Earlier this year, Shell, Chevron and Total announced a joint venture with GHGSat to use satellite monitoring to detect methane emissions over offshore facilities.
ExxonMobil is also working with GHGSat to use satellite technology for more effective monitoring, as well as testing several other detection methods. As ExxonMobil’s Staale Gjervik explained:
“By testing the most promising methane detection technologies in a field environment, we are providing viable solutions that can be adopted by other producers to detect and reduce methane emissions. We are applying scientific rigor and taking aggressive steps to find commercially scalable and affordable solutions for all operators.”
In 2020, ExxonMobil launched Project Astra, a collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin, Environmental Defense Fund, Gas Technology Institute, Pioneer Natural Resources, Chevron, Microsoft and Schlumberger that deployed state of the art sensors in the Permian to allow producers and regulators to find and fix methane releases. Through partnership with regulators, researchers, and industry, the project aims to develop the next generation of tools to monitor and reduce emissions. As David Allen, lead investigator on the project, professor of chemical engineering at UT Austin and the director of the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Center for Energy and Environmental Resources, said:
“Cost-effective, high-frequency monitoring for these assets will require innovative and disruptive techniques. The goal of Project Astra is to design, develop and deploy a prototype, next-generation monitoring network.
As technology continues to improve, so too will the ability for the industry to quickly identify leaks and fix them, reducing global methane emissions.