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States Should Monitor Methane to Meet Climate Goals

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Scientists have made it clear: To prevent calamitous climate change fallout in our lifetimes, we have to take bold action. With the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent proposed rollback on the regulation of methane emissions, it’s also clear that states can’t rely on the federal government right now to act responsibly. It’s up to us. Fortunately, states have data-gathering tools at their disposal to shape effective policy, but they have to start using them now.

WIRED OPINION

ABOUT

Michelle Lujan Grisham is the governor of New Mexico. Mark Johnson is CEO of Descartes Labs.

While much of the discussion about greenhouse gases is focused on carbon dioxide, methane packs an even more powerful climate punch —trapping 28 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over 100 years.

Last week, Santa Fe-based Descartes Labs (where Mark is a cofounder) announced a bold initiative to utilize satellite mapping and modeling to monitor methane emissions, starting in the world’s highest-producing oilfield, the Permian Basin. The project supports New Mexico’s goal to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. As an energy-producing state, we recognize that meeting this goal requires collaboration with the industry and the most innovative technologies available. We hope that other state and local governments will take similar actions.

It’s no secret that New Mexico’s percentage of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is double the nationwide average; you can detect the plumes from space. And the Permian Basin, which spans more than 86,000 square miles across southeastern New Mexico and west Texas, is a major hot spot. (The US Energy Information Administration projects that domestic crude oil production will rise to more than 15 million barrels of oil per day by 2022, primarily from the Permian Basin.)

But for any state to reduce methane in the atmosphere, we need to know exactly where it’s coming from to make tangible progress. For example, a methane survey in California led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 2015 through 2017 found that 80 percent of methane emissions came from 25 percent of its sources. In some cases, more than 50 percent of the emissions came from only 1 percent of sources, highlighting the devastating impact of “super emitters” such as poorly maintained landfills or a natural gas compressor station with a leak.

To reach our goal, this effort will create a different kind of refinery than the ones extracting oil and gas in the Permian Basin. We will use a comprehensive network of satellites, aerial platforms, and ground sensors to develop a “data refinery” that monitors methane on a large scale, which will help oil and gas companies improve their management of emissions and guide state inspectors to potential problem areas on a near-real-time basis.

With the new data refinery, New Mexico will be the first state to formally leverage data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite, which maps the composition of the earth’s atmosphere daily—including greenhouse gases such as methane.

As we embark on this initiative, we realize there are still many challenges with large-scale methane monitoring. Among them is the historical lack of reliable tools for methane detection and measurement. The Sentinel-5P was launched only two years ago; we don’t have a lot of baseline data to work with. To fully understand how to best detect, measure, and regulate methane emissions so that we can reduce its effects on climate change, we need to gather more data.

The good news is that at least three new publicly available satellites with higher resolution capabilities are scheduled to be launched by NASA and the Environmental Defense Fund between 2020 and 2022. A path to even more detailed measurements using geospatial analysis is just around the corner, for both methane and other greenhouse gases.

Creating our data refinery now forges a path to meet New Mexico’s ambitious energy and climate goals in the future. With data pouring in from multiple sources, we’ll see where methane emissions are coming from in the state and take steps for abatement.

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