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Google Gets in on Methane Emission Measurement

Google and the Environmental Defense Fund are teaming up to measure global methane emissions from oil and gas production.
Abigail Bassett
Feb 27, 2024 9 min read
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This week, Google announced a project, in conjunction with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), to map the global methane emissions using satellites. With the goal of pinpointing the largest and most egregious methane leaks, the MethaneSAT satellite will survey levels of methane emitted by the world's top oil and gas-producing regions to get a better handle on just how much methane is being emitted.

Once quantified and mapped, it will be easier for countries to work together to reduce the amount of damaging greenhouse gas that escapes into the atmosphere each day and curb the long-term impacts of methane leaks on global warming.

Why Methane Matters in Climate Change

Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted from human activities after carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the International Energy Agency, methane is responsible for around 30% of global warming. Moreover, a recent study from RMI found that methane can produce as much warming as burning coal, once you account for leaks. It is the main component of natural gas, which is used in everything from household and commercial cooking to heating, transportation, and more. More importantly, however, it's a byproduct of oil and gas drilling. It's found in its largest concentration in agriculture and the decomposition of landfill waste. Yet, not all sources of methane are caused by human activity; wetlands also produce methane.

When it comes to climate change and global warming, methane is much more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane is a measure of its ability to trap heat in the atmosphere relative to CO2. Over 100-years, the GWP of methane is approximately 28-34 times greater than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

According to the IEA, “This means that one tonne of methane can be considered to be equivalent to 28 to 36 tonnes of CO2 if looking at its impact over 100 years.” Methane is much more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2, even though it remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period. Methane stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years, while CO2 hangs around for hundreds to thousands of years.

According to the IPCC report, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere has more than doubled since the pre-industrial era (prior to 1750), and atmospheric methane levels have continued to rise, reaching over 1,800 parts per billion (ppb) by 2020. That’s up from about 700 ppb in the pre-industrial era. The report primarily attributes this increase to human activities, such as agriculture (notably from livestock and rice paddies), waste management (landfills), and the production and transport of fossil fuels.

What has taken so long?

Here in the US, the EPA has tried to regulate and manage methane emissions for years, and the Biden Administration recently updated rules for gas and oil drillers, aiming to reduce the emissions from wells by more than 80%, according to NPR. The plan called the Methane Emissions Reduction Program, is aggressive in that it levies increasing fines on gas and oil companies that fail to capture or reduce methane gas escaping from their drilling operations.

Fees begin at $900 per metric ton of emissions in 2024 and increase to $1,200 in 2025 and $1,500 in 2026 and beyond. According to The Verge, “Leaks alone cost the US, the world’s biggest gas producer, around 1 percent of its annual gas production — 6.5 million metric tons of leaking methane a year.”

The EDF entered into an agreement with the New Zealand Space Agency in 2021, and in 2020, the Bezos Earth Fund gave the EDF project $100 million for development. Together, they have developed a satellite called MethaneSAT, which will soon go into orbit.

One of the main blockers has been mapping and understanding the methane leaks on a more global level. Google Cloud algorithms will allow the EDF to measure and track the amount of methane emitted over time, giving climate change scientists new and more accurate real-time data. The data will be overlaid with Google Maps and trained AI to detect oil and gas infrastructure like storage tanks and well pads to better pinpoint leaks. This isn't the first time that Google has partnered with the EDF. In 2013, Google allowed the EDF to put methane sensors on their Street View mapping cars to map leaking methane sites, according to The Verge.

The EDF program should make significant strides against the goals of reducing methane emissions around the world. The EDF has other significant backers for the program, including Harvard and the Smithsonian.

How Soon Will the Data Arrive?

MethaneSAT has been in development for a few years, and the satellite will make its way to the stars on Space X’s Falcon9 rocket in March this year. MethaneSAT will orbit the globe 15 times a day and track methane levels over major oil and gas fields, though it won't quantify the methane released by other major emitters like landfills. A separate project by NASA and a nonprofit called Carbon Mapper currently tracks landfill emissions.

However, data collection and quantification are the first steps in curbing methane emissions. Aging oil and gas infrastructure will need to be overhauled, and oil and gas-producing countries must implement penalties and incentives to make it all work. While reducing methane emissions could be huge in slowing down global warming, it will still take time for infrastructure improvements and methane capture to have a widespread impact on climate change. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimate from 2021 shows that significant reductions in methane emissions could avoid as much as 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s. This is substantial, considering the global goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C, and aiming for 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels. That is, of course, if we haven’t surpassed that limit already.

While the EDF hasn't announced a firm timeline, it says that data should become available by the end of 2024, with a more complete picture by 2025. The data will also be made publicly available through MethaneSAT’s website and Google’s Earth Engine.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett