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A new satellite will help tackle methane leaks, a major driver of global warming

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The broadcast version of this report inaccurately described the professional background of Manfredi Caltagirone. He is the head of the International Methane Emissions Observatory, but is not himself a scientist studying methane. The reference has been corrected in the story available online.]


The main driver in global warming is carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. But there's another culprit - methane. It's a potent greenhouse gas that often escapes from drilling sites and pipelines. Now a nonprofit is launching a satellite to try to find those leaks, and it could be a powerful new tool to slow climate change. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: It's a blistering hot afternoon near Denver when Chris Weaver lands in a modified private jet. For hours, the pilot has been flying over one of Colorado's biggest oil and gas basins in loops.

CHRIS WEAVER: It looks like we are mowing grass, going round and round and round in circles, or for my Canadian friends, it's like driving a Zamboni.

SIMON: This plane once flew oil executives around the country. Now it's operated by the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading climate group.

WEAVER: So it's a little bit ironic, but it's a fantastic airplane for what we need.

BRASCH: And what they need is to test a state-of-the-art sensor to detect methane, an invisible pollutant leaking from many oil and gas operations. Jon Goldstein is a policy advocate with EDF.

JON GOLDSTEIN: With your naked eye, you can't see these methane leaks. And that's been one of the big problems with finding and fixing these issues when they crop up.

BRASCH: EDF has spent years hunting for methane leaks from the ground and in planes. Now the group plans to put that same sensor into space. It'll go up aboard MethaneSAT, a $90 million satellite set to launch early next year.

GOLDSTEIN: What it's going to do is give us the best, most complete picture of the methane problem that we've had to date.

BRASCH: That picture is critical 'cause methane is both super powerful and super temporary, at least compared to carbon dioxide. Pound for pound, methane traps roughly 80 times more heat, but it dissipates after about two decades. Goldstein says that's why the EDF is so focused on cutting methane. It's one of the most effective ways to limit warming right now.

GOLDSTEIN: So that means that efforts to reduce that methane emission are very important and powerful at bending the curve on the problem in our lifetimes.

BRASCH: MethaneSAT will hunt for leaks worldwide. It's now under construction at Ball Aerospace in Boulder. We can see it through a window into a spotless clean room. It looks like a bulky cube, solar panels tucked against either side. Steve Hamburg is the EDF's chief scientist. He knows it might sound like a lot to launch a satellite, but before they can take action, he says regulators need a clear map of methane polluters.

STEVE HAMBURG: When you have that kind of availability of the data and then you put it into a form people can use, you can drive change.

BRASCH: EDF first started hunting for methane leaks more than a decade ago as natural gas drilling boomed in the U.S. They found more leaks than anyone expected, which led to regulations across the country. Now they want to take that effort worldwide.

HAMBURG: Thus was born the concept of MethaneSAT.

BRASCH: The oil and gas industry, at least in the U.S., says the project doesn't bother them. The American Petroleum Institute told me it welcomes satellites that, quote, "support the industry's progress" in reducing emissions. Manfredi Caltagirone thinks the project could be a game changer. He leads the International Methane Emissions Observatory for the United Nations and says data from MethaneSAT will help find leaks far faster and check if efforts to fix them are actually working.

MANFREDI CALTAGIRONE: It's really critical because it's going to be able to reduce the worst effect of climate change in the short term and, quote-unquote, "buy us time" to put forward actions on broader decarbonization efforts that are necessary.

BRASCH: Decarbonization meaning a shift away from fossil fuels. He says scientists agree that'll take decades. Meanwhile, projects like MethaneSAT will help limit the damage.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: September 11, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
The broadcast version of this report inaccurately described the professional background of Manfredi Caltagirone. He is the head of the International Methane Emissions Observatory, but is not himself a scientist studying methane. The reference has been corrected in the story available online.

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