Google joins a mission to map global methane emissions from space

Google today announced a partnership with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to map methane pollution and oil and gas infrastructure from space.

Google and EDF hope to pinpoint where a large portion of those methane emissions are leaking from – which could perhaps help plug those leaks. Next month, EDF plans to launch its MethaneSAT, a satellite that will monitor emissions of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, Google is using AI to map oil and gas infrastructure, creating a global map of pollution sources.

Preventing methane pollution can have a major and immediate impact on climate change

“The infrastructure is changing quickly, and keeping a map like this up to date requires constant input. But this is something we’ve built up a lot of expertise in in our maps and geos organization,” Yael Maguire, vice president and general manager of Google’s Geo Sustainability team, said at a press conference. “We believe this information is incredibly valuable for energy companies, researchers and the public sector to anticipate and limit methane emissions.”

Although many government and corporate commitments to tackle climate change focus on the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels, methane is responsible for about 30 percent of the global warming that has occurred to date. Methane is the main component of so-called natural gas and routinely leaks along supply chains, from wells and pipelines to gas appliances. Landfills and livestock are also major sources of methane pollution.

In the first twenty years after entering the atmosphere, methane is 80 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the planet. Fortunately, methane has a much shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide, which can linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years longer. Because it is a potent but short-lived climate pollutant, preventing methane pollution could have a major and immediate impact on climate change.

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“Methane dominates what happens in the short term,” Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at EDF, said during Google’s press call. “The timing is really important. Because if we do it very quickly and drastically reduce methane emissions, we can significantly reduce that rate of warming in the coming decades.”

Research by EDF and other groups has shown that many countries, including the US, are likely vastly underestimating the amount of methane leaking from oil and gas infrastructure. As a solution, EDF started working on MethaneSAT, which is now a huge initiative with many big names. It is partnering with the New Zealand Space Agency, making MethaneSAT the country’s first publicly funded space mission. In 2020, the Bezos Earth Fund gave EDF $100 million in support of MethaneSAT. The satellite is expected to be launched next month aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

MethaneSAT orbits the Earth fifteen times a day and will survey methane levels in the world’s major oil and gas producing regions. Algorithms powered by Google Cloud allow EDF to track how much methane is emitted over time. EDF is also working on this initiative with scientists from Harvard and the Smithsonian and their joint Center for Astrophysics. EDF has also worked with Google in the past; the company had EDF equip its Street View cars with sensors in 2013 to map leaking methane.

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Now Google is stepping in to create one of the most detailed maps yet of methane pollution and oil and gas infrastructure. It uses essentially the same methods for recognizing sidewalks and street signs in satellite images that are used to keep Google Maps up to date. It’s just training AI to recognize wells, pump jacks, storage tanks and other fossil fuel infrastructure instead. It can be combined with MethaneSAT emissions data to paint a picture of where all this pollution is coming from and potentially prevent some of it. Leaks alone cost the US, the world’s largest gas producer, about 1 percent of annual gas production: 6.5 million tons of leaking methane per year.

However, closing these leaks still does not go far enough to achieve global climate goals. Only a transition to clean energy can stop climate change. Google pledged to stop building custom AI tools that help fossil fuel companies extract more oil and gas in 2020, but environmentalists continue to urge the company to drop all existing contracts with fossil fuel companies.

Exact launch details for MethanSAT have not yet been announced. EDF says it should be able to share some of the satellite’s data later this year, with a much fuller picture expected next year. “By the end of 2025, we should have a very clear picture of all the major oil and gas basins around the world on a global scale,” Hamburg says.

The data will be made publicly available to researchers and policymakers through MethanSAT’s website and Google Earth Engine, the company’s cloud-based geospatial data platform.

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