Google designs a map of methane leaks for the whole world to see

Google designs a map of methane leaks for the whole world to see

Google expects to publish its methane map later this year.

  • Google plans to use satellite data, artificial intelligence technology and computing power to map methane emissions.
  • Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas responsible for nearly a third of global warming.
  • Nearly 40% of man-made methane comes from oil, gas and coal operations.

A satellite that measures methane leaks from oil and gas companies is set to begin orbiting Earth 15 times a day next month. Google plans to have the data mapped out by the end of the year for the whole world to see.

The partnership between Google and the Environmental Defense Fund, which is expected to launch its satellite known as MethaneSat in March, represents a new era of global climate accountability. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is estimated to be responsible for nearly a third of human-caused global warming. Scientists say cutting methane emissions is one of the quickest ways to slow the climate crisis because methane has 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide over a decade.

“Globally, 2023 was the hottest year on record,” Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at EDF and leader of the MethaneSAT project, told reporters. “The need to protect the climate has never been more urgent, and reducing methane emissions from fossil fuel operations and agriculture is actually the fastest way we can slow global warming right now.”

Agriculture — especially cow burps — bears much of the blame for the methane problem. The International Energy Agency said that agriculture is the largest source of methane emissions caused by human activities, but the energy sector comes in second place. Oil, gas and coal operations are thought to be responsible for 40% of global methane emissions caused by human activities. The IEA says focusing on the energy sector should be a priority, partly because reducing methane leaks is cost-effective. Leaking gas can be captured and sold, and the technology to do so is relatively cheap.

But methane has been difficult to track in near real time. MethaneSat is among a new generation of satellites designed to pinpoint gas sources almost anywhere in the world, while Google has the computing power and artificial intelligence prowess to analyze massive amounts of data and map oil and gas infrastructure.

Historically, measuring methane leaks required expensive field studies using aircraft and portable infrared cameras. This approach provides only a snapshot in time, and it took years for research to be published.

Mapping oil and gas operations presents a similar challenge, said Yael Maguire, vice president and general manager of sustainability at Google Geo — the team behind platforms like Google Maps and Street View — The locations of wellheads, industrial pumps, and storage tanks can change rapidly, so the map must be updated regularly. The satellite can meet this demand.

The same AI technology that Google used to detect trees, pedestrian crossings and intersections from satellite images will be applied to oil and gas infrastructure, Maguire said. The map will be overlaid with data from MethaneSAT to highlight the type of machines most vulnerable to leaks.

“We believe this information is incredibly valuable to energy companies, researchers and the public sector for predicting and mitigating methane emissions in the components most at risk overall,” Maguire said.

Yellow dots indicate the source, while purple, orange and yellow shading show how emissions are spread over a wider area.

Global methane pledges

The launch of the satellite comes as countries and oil and gas companies aim to significantly reduce methane emissions by 2030 to address the climate crisis.

During the UN climate summit hosted in Dubai last year, companies representing 40% of global oil and gas production promised to virtually eliminate methane leaks from their operations this decade. At least 155 countries have also signed the Global Methane Pledge, which calls for a 30% reduction in emissions. The pledge was launched in 2021, but since then, methane emissions have continued to rise.

To help change this trajectory, the United States and Europe last year passed tough regulations against methane emissions from fossil fuel infrastructure. the EU rules It went a step further by targeting oil and gas imports. Europe imports about 80% of its energy needs, including from the United States. By 2027, these imports are expected to meet methane emissions standards on par with Europe.

Japan and South Korea, both of which rely on energy imports, are looking into similar laws, Hamburg said.

“This means that methane gas has become a competitive challenge for this industry, not just a regulatory challenge,” he said. “Achieving real results means government, civil society and industry need to know how much methane is coming from, who is responsible for those emissions, and how those emissions are changing over time. We need data on a global scale.”

Google plans to make the data freely available to the public on Google Earth later this year, Maguire said.

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