From soil to space, the hunt for methane emissions



A satellite photo in ocher tones is displayed on the screen. The landscape is difficult to recognize. Antoine Benoit, engineer at Kayrros, deciphers the image: we are in the middle of Russia, in 2019. And there is a ” anomaly “. Large yellow pixels form a trail over several tens of kilometers. First hypothesis: these would be massive emissions of methane, the second pollutant behind CO2, but which has a heating power 80 times more powerful.

How did this gas end up there? Methane emissions have several sources. Some are natural. The rest come (in equal parts) from agriculture, landfills and the production of fossil fuels. A leak in a gas pipeline or flaring – which involves burning the escaping natural gas at the time of oil extraction – may well be the source.

New generation of satellites

Let’s go back to our satellite photo. Antoine Benoit superimposes it on the map of global energy infrastructures. This reveals that we are near a pipeline. Several technical verifications – linked to the direction of the wind, for example – confirm that a massive methane leak at this location, linked to energy infrastructures, is highly probable.

A few years earlier, the exercise would have been almost impossible. “These detections are enabled by both a new generation of satellites and the computing capacities of computers that we did not have before”, indicates Antoine Rostand, one of the founders of Kayrros. This French company is based on data from the Sentinel 5P satellite, launched by the European Space Agency in 2018. Each day, it circles the Earth. Its images are analyzed automatically and highlight abnormal and massive methane emissions.

Rapid reduction potential

The clients are regulatory authorities, owners of infrastructures or even investors. Other companies, like the Canadian GHGSat, are positioning themselves in this niche.

States are also taking a keen interest in this technology. Rapidly reducing methane emissions has emerged in recent years as an effective solution to limit global warming.

“The most difficult is to detect”

Leaks in energy infrastructure are the fastest to reduce, according to experts. Companies have an interest in limiting these emissions, insofar as they cause losses. “The most difficult is to detect leaks, explains Jonathan Banks, methane manager for the American environmental NGO Clean Air Task Force. Once spotted, these are often inexpensive to repair. “

In mid-December, the European Commission proposed a regulation obliging European suppliers to monitor their infrastructure and fix any malfunctions within five days. The Commission also wants to ban certain polluting practices by producers, such as flaring.

Small leaks

Observation from space, even if it turns out to be more and more powerful, will not be enough to monitor all the infrastructures. “The novelty brought by satellites is to be able to detect super-transmitters, often located abroad, analyzes Bart Wauterickx, CEO of The Sniffers, which has been working to detect methane emissions since 2001. At European level, we mainly observe small leaks, invisible from space. “

Satellites are then added to the tools used for a long time: sensors attached to drones, cars, infrared cameras which already made it possible to monitor energy infrastructures.

Importers

The future of these supervisory intermediaries will depend in part on future regulations. As it stands, the European proposal only applies to producers, not to importers.

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“We would like the obligation to apply to everyone in the future, because the main sources of pollution are often abroad, points out Jonathan Banks of the Clean Air Taks Force. Europe has the means to exert pressure, as the biggest importer of gas and oil in the world. “

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