GHGSat seeks methane from space to help Canada tackle global warming
August 3, 2022
Montreal-based GHGSat is on the methane hunt.
The company seeks out industrial leaks of methane on Earth using a fleet of six satellites that is set to grow to 10 in the first quarter of 2023.
Each of these machines – roughly the equivalent size of two microwaves – orbits our planet at an altitude of 500 kilometres, putting them above the International Space Station’s pathway. The higher altitude gives them a wide-field gaze across a larger swath of territory.
Despite their high perch, the satellites can see things as small as 30 metres across and detect methane emissions of just 100 kilograms per hour – which is unique among space sentinels, GHGSat says. They say this capability is a boon for industrial customers, especially those using pipelines, landfills or other facilities in the far north where in-person visits to monitor infrastructure are costly.
The company frames their effort as crucial to help Canada hit climate change targets, although they emphasize that satellites are a first step. Space monitoring “quickly identifies the biggest leaks so that you could target the other capabilities to shut them down fastest,” said GHGSat’s Eric Choi. “This is where we’re going to make the biggest difference in terms of mitigating climate change in the near term.”
Choi, GHGSat’s director of business development, pointed to all the policy-makers paying attention. The company recently completed a pilot project with Environment and Climate Change Canada to target methane emissions at energy facilities and landfills, which they hope to make into a long-term contract.
In November 2021, the federal government invested $20 million in GHGSat, through Sustainable Development Technology Canada. The company will use this funding to expand its fleet of high-tech satellites that track GHG emissions from Earth’s orbit, using high-resolution spectrometer imaging.
Also last year, GHGSat raised US$45 million in Series B funding, with the support of the Government of Quebec through Investissement Québec, OGCI Climate Investments and Space Capital. The investment will enable the company to triple the number of satellite-borne sensors deployed by 2023 and expand its international commercial presence, particularly in Europe and the U.S.
GHGSat also participates in the European Space Agency’s Earthnet program, allowing all states in the collaboration to use the data for non-commercial scientific research purposes. NASA is also eyeing GHGSat data to potentially share with its own science community.
But the crucial question is to what extent GHGSat’s efforts will fit into the larger framework for fighting against climate change. Canada’s current climate change target for 2030 calls for the country to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.
In 2005, Canada’s total GHG emissions were roughly two per cent, or 731 megatonnes, of global emissions, according to government documentation. Canada has always produced GHGs disproportionate to its small population, but the country is also cold, geographically large with higher demand for transportation, and working to create energy alternatives where possible.
Jan Gorski, director of the Pembina Institute’s oil and gas program and a community-recognized expert regarding methane, says that GHGSat’s aims are admirable – but will not solve all of the GHG emissions problem.
“The challenge with methane is that we don’t know the real level of emissions with a lot of certainty, and we still don't know exactly where those emissions are coming from, specifically,” he said. While GHGSat’s mandate does include seeking out these unknown sources, Gorski said it’s hard to track methane emissions when it’s hard to predict even where they are coming from.
Methane and carbon dioxide are the two biggest greenhouse gases contributing to global warming, Gorski said. Of those two gases, carbon dioxide is “by far the biggest one,” but reducing methane is also important as it impacts how fast the climate warms.
Groups urge stronger action on oil and gas industry’s methane emissions
The federal government is drafting regulations for the oil and gas sector to follow, and the Pembina Institute is among the environmental organizations participating in a joint submission highlighting the opportunities to address climate change by achieving near-zero methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 2030.
With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showing that atmospheric methane concentrations in 2020 and 2021 set records, the joint submission urges the government to take immediate action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C (the target set by the Paris Agreement at the United Nations climate change conference in 2015).
Among measures proposed, the environmental groups are calling for stronger venting and flaring limits (which account for roughly 23 per cent of methane emissions), more accurate emissions measurements, and requiring reporting of methane emissions – which the federal government does not currently request.
We likely will not know the Canadian government response until the 27th United Nations climate change conference, which will be held this November in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. The Canadian coalition submission, however, says methane targeting and tracking is very possible with current technology and, as such, urges immediate action by the Liberal government.
“Rapidly tackling methane will be crucial to achieving milestone emission reductions during this decade,” the submission states, adding that taking action now will allow the community to start “staving off serious near-term impacts of warming.”
Alongside this coalition effort, a global group of methane emission-tracking companies known as the Methane Alliance have banded together, arguing that methane regulations will lead to job growth instead of a sector turndown, according to the Pembina Institute.
Will GHGSat’s efforts be enough? That will depend upon the company’s ability to raise customers and work beyond Canada’s borders. Even though Canada disproportionately contributes to methane relative to its population, our country is small enough that reducing emissions here will only make a tiny contribution to the global problem.
That said, the company points to the interest from policy-makers in the United States and Europe as examples of how GHGSat’s reach is starting to expand into the international sphere. GHGSat’s Choi adds that the satellites will also depend upon a robust ground network of drones, vehicles and other sensing platforms to ensure that leaks can be monitored at closer range than Earth’s orbit.
As long as these metrics are met, Choi says the opportunity for GHGSat is sure to expand as its constellation gets larger. “We do feel strongly that the private sector and the commercial space sector has [tracking] capabilities that are directly amenable to addressing government priorities,” he said.
Within Canada, Choi added, committing to better tracking of methane emissions is a start, as “this would put us in lockstep with, for example, in Europe and the United States, where [tracking] is just a matter of course. The governments of our international partners make very heavy use of commercial capabilities … and Canada should be doing the same.”