Wed, May 29 2024 29 May, 2024

New satellite data a gamechanger: Global Methane Hub

A new generation of satellites starting in 2024 will provide unparalleled transparency on methane emissions, Marcelo Mena-Carrasco, CEO of the Global Methane Hub, said in a Gas Outlook interview.

Gas storage tanks at a refinery complex (Photo credit: Adobe Stock/ Jose Luis Stephens)

A new generation of satellites will draw back the whole curtain on methane emissions worldwide starting in 2024. This unprecedented transparency, in conjunction with more aggressive mitigation policies targeted at the oil and gas industry, boosts the odds of keeping global temperature rises to within a critical 1.5°C threshold, according to Marcelo Mena-Carrasco, chief executive of the Global Methane Hub.

Building on the considerable progress of existing methane-tracking satellites such as GESat, the upcoming launches of the Carbon Mapper and MethaneSAT systems mean “the days of self-reporting will be over. Theoretical estimates will be contrasted with the observations,” Mena told Gas Outlook in an interview.

The Santiago-based Global Methane Hub (GMH), created in 2021, coordinates methane mitigation funding in the energy, agricultural and waste sectors that cause 96% of anthropogenic emissions.

GMH’s mission is pivotal for the planet. Methane accounts for around one third of the rise in global temperatures. Unlike CO2 that endures in the atmosphere for centuries, methane has a lifespan of only around a dozen years. Yet in this brief period, methane absorbs vastly more heat than its greenhouse gas cousin.

Sixty percent of methane emissions are caused by human activity, led by agriculture. Not far behind is the energy sector, including coal, oil, gas and biofuels. Plugging leaks and stopping routine flaring and venting from the oil and gas sector alone are considered the most cost-effective pathway to curbing these emissions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the oil and gas industry could avoid more than 70% of its current methane emissions by using existing technology.

In the case of LNG, for example, methane can leak from valves, compressor seals, metering and loading equipment at liquefaction facilities, the IEA says. And during shipping, methane can escape from gas that is vented or used as propulsion and not fully combusted in ship engines. None of this is considered technically challenging to address.

Globally, methane emissions in the oil and gas sector have been shown to be 70% higher than self-reported data, an enormous gap that will be systematically exposed by the new satellites. “There is a lot of power in the relentless information,” Mena said, noting the case of Turkmenistan that took action after its hefty methane emissions from two hydrocarbon fields came to light.

In its 2023 Global Methane Tracker, the IEA asserts that abatement measures in the oil and gas sector require $100 billion in investment to 2030, equivalent to less than 3% of the industry’s net income in 2022. The U.S. government’s new Methane Emissions Reduction Program and an emerging EU methane import standard for oil and gas will help to incentivize fossil fuel companies to make this investment. “The only way they will really act is that they feel a threat and there is nothing stronger than a threat to being shut out of a market where you expect to place your products,” said Mena, who is also a former environment minister of Chile.

Avoiding methane mitigation is a missed commercial opportunity as well. According to the IEA, an estimated 200 billion cubic meters of additional gas could be brought to markets by curbing flaring and methane emissions, a volume that exceeds the EU’s gas imports from Russia prior to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2021. “Stopping this waste of natural gas would also reduce global temperature rise by nearly 0.1 °C by mid-century,” the IEA says.

The global methane mitigation campaign and increasingly granular measurements are particularly relevant for countries and companies that espouse the role of gas in the energy transition. “We should first off question any natural gas transition without knowing the exact leakage rate of the sources, and these have to be independently verified,” Mena said. “A natural gas transition with high leakage rates might be worse than coal,” he added, citing a pioneering July study led by Deborah Gordon, senior principal in Colorado-based nonprofit RMI’s Climate Intelligence Program.

The GMH is working with 150 countries that have signed a Global Methane Pledge to slash methane emissions from human activity by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Yet the biggest emitters of methane from fossil fuels — China and Russia — are not signatories. Together these two countries accounted for around one-third of methane emissions from fossil fuel operations in 2022, according to the IEA. Undeterred, Mena says the GMH is working with China as well as subnational authorities in India, another country that has shied away from the pledge. The GMH also plans to engage with Venezuela, which is ramping up its deteriorated national oil industry after the U.S. lifted most sanctions in October.

Countries like Mena’s native Chile that remain dependent on fossil fuel imports, namely gas and oil, benefit from accelerating the transition to renewable energy rather than perpetuating subsidized fossil fuel consumption. Chile’s fuel subsidies totalled $3 billion last year alone. In a slower transition, “the growth of subsidy demand will continue and you’ll just be subsidizing the problem and not the solution.”

Methane mitigation in the Global South

Heading into the COP28 conference that kicks off in Dubai on November 30, Mena highlighted the GMH’s focus on the Global South, where methane mitigation offers big local benefits such as reduced toxic air pollution from venting at oil and gas sites. As for livestock emissions, Mena notes that higher-quality animal feed makes for more efficient dairy production from cows, so ranchers need fewer heads of cattle to achieve the same yield. A similar dynamic is at play with more efficient rice production. These steps reduce pressure on forests and water supply. And at landfills, another major source of methane, emissions mitigation reduces fire risk.

Mena lays out the value proposition for local action on methane. “We hope everyone meets their 1.5° commitments, but if you take action here, you don’t need everybody else to do the same to gain the benefit of lower temperatures, lower health impacts, higher productivity and less crop loss.”

The GMH’s Global South initiatives illustrate how methane mitigation flips the narrative of climate change as a problem that rich industrialized countries bear the main responsibility to solve. “If methane warming materializes over 12 years, it is the last 12 years of emissions that are causing that,” Mena explained. “So it’s not the historical burden of emissions that has contributed to the warming from industrial nations like with CO2. This is the opposite.”

For Mena, the geopolitical case for curbing methane emissions is compelling. “Today, the geopolitics of fossil fuel production are about oligarchies and concentrated wealth and … dependence on subsidies,” he said. “The narrative of investing in your own resources is a strong one.”

Challenges aside, Mena is upbeat. “If you want to stop and shave off 0.2°C between 2030 and 2040, methane mitigation is the fastest way to do that,” he said. “We are not losing the climate fight, we’re just not winning fast enough.”

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