Will satellites play their role in addressing methane leak monitoring requirements?

There is a seismic shift in methane gas leak monitoring requirements coming for the EU energy sector, but will satellites miss out on playing their part because of a difference in units?

Historically methane gas has been considered a safety issue, methane gas leaks were bad because of the risk of explosion or asphyxiation. But, in this brave new world of climate change and net zero commitments, methane gas leak levels set the pace for warming in the near term. That is because methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. In response to the damage caused by methane gas emissions the EU published its Methane Strategy in Oct 2020. With this document stating that the energy sector was responsible for 19% of EU human made methane emissions and the below statement, the writing was on the wall for big changes to how our gas production, infrastructure and transport system operators will be required to handle methane gas leaks.

In December 2021 the EU published their proposal for a ‘Regulation on methane emissions reductions in the energy sector’:and it makes striking reading. In a nutshell operators will be required to survey ALL assets for leaks every 3 months, report and fix all leaks above 500 ppm within 15 days.

Monitoring requirements vary a lot by country, some do a visual inspection once a year of their high pressure networks, others every two weeks but NOBODY, (if I am wrong please let me know) is testing their entire network for leaks every 3 months.

The other striking element is the 500ppm threshold. Again rules vary a lot by country but because methane gas leaks are currently treated as a safety, not an environmental issue, methane leaks leading to concentration levels of over 10,000 ppm usually trigger some form of immediate fix or mitigation action, with leaks leading to lower ppm levels having a sliding scale of required intervention timescales.

So while this proposed EU regulation may get altered on its path to being fully adopted, it does, quite rightly, represent a seismic shift in how methane gas leakage is perceived, monitored and hopefully drastically reduced.

So how are our network operators and infrastructure owners going to meet this monitoring challenge in a way that doesn’t have a huge CO2 footprint? Can satellites play a role in quarterly methane gas leak detection at scale? Technically the answer is yes, both indirectly by using satellites to detect areas with an elevated risk of a gas leak; and directly via very sensitive methane monitoring sensors onboard satellites that are already in orbit. Plus there are new providers, more capacity and more sensitive higher resolution methane gas sensors on the way. My big concern is that the earth observation sector and regulation don’t talk the same language. In slightly simple terms satellite methane monitoring communicates results as atmospheric concentration of methane in ‘parts per billion’ but regulation talks about point source concentration of methane in ‘parts per million’.

Sadly in this instance you cannot just multiply ppm by 1000 to get the equivalent in ppb…

Spottitt is working with gas network operators and satellite data providers to ensure progress is not slowed by a difference in units. 

Lucy Kennedy, co-founder, CEO and EO Evangelist

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